Will Michigan Allow Nestlé to Operate below the Ground and above the Law?

Final decision looms on permit to increase groundwater pumping granted contrary to science, law, and public interest

Jim Olson is FLOW’s Founder, President, and Legal Advisor

By Jim Olson

In the coming weeks, Liesl Clark, the director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)—and ultimately, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer—will make the final decision required by state law on a Nestlé water bottling permit to remove another 210 million gallons of groundwater a year virtually for free from the directly connected headwaters of Twin and Chippewa creeks just north of Evart, in Osceola County. The administration of former Gov. Rick Snyder supported the permit through the loose interpretation of Michigan’s 2008 groundwater law and acceptance of a model submitted by Nestlé that underestimated impacts. And the approval came despite more than 80,000 public comments against the permit, with just 75 people in favor.

The courts in a separate 2003-2005 case in neighboring Mecosta County over Nestlé’s removal of water from the headwaters of a stream and several lakes found that computer models were not reliable. The only way a model can be used to gauge environmental impacts, the courts ruled, is to verify the estimates of the model with actual measurements of flows and levels of the streams before and during pumping. From the measurements, the effects of flows and levels can be readily calculated, and the actual impacts determined. If this is not done, the impacts in the real world will not be determined, and any resulting decision would be inconsistent with required scientific methodology, and the law.

In 2008, Michigan enacted its first groundwater withdrawal law and amended the Safe Drinking Water Act that imposed specific standards for EGLE to apply to well permit applications to take groundwater for bottled water operations. One critical standard requires that for a decision to be reasonable and lawful, the decision must be based on existing hydrogeological conditions before and during pumping, as well as on predicted conditions. In other words, there must be measurements and calculations of the effects of pumping and, if a model is used to estimate effects, of predicted conditions that are substantiated by the calculations. This is exactly what the courts decided and why this standard is in the statute. Models without calculated effects based on actual observation cannot be used in authorizing a permit. Yet this is exactly what happened when EGLE and the administrative law judge recommended approval of the permit. It was done without the required calculations and scientific methodology in accordance with the 2008 law. Without this verification, the model cannot be relied on to issue the permit.

The question now before Governor Whitmer and Director Clark is: Will they allow Nestlé to slide under the legal threshold required for the groundwater extraction permit? Their answer will have a lasting impact on the future of Michigan groundwater, lakes, streams, and wetlands. In a recent news release, state officials conceded that the upcoming decision must be based on science and the legal standards that apply. The Governor and Director Clark are under the spotlight to see whether they will uphold the true intent of the 2008 law to demand calculated effects, not just a model, for large-volume withdrawals from our headwater creeks and wetlands for export as bottled water.

Their decision will be nothing less than a litmus test on whether the Whitmer administration and EGLE will follow the rule of law that protects the waters of Michigan or follow the bias of the Snyder administration to shave the facts and law in favor of business over our state’s water, environment, and public health.

Take Action: Tell the State of Michigan to Stop the Nestlé Groundwater Grab — Please click here to take action today to stop this unlawful capture of the public’s water. The Director of the Michigan Department of the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has the final say on the Nestlé permit. But EGLE has moved to dismiss citizen concerns. Please take action now to write EGLE Director Liesl Clark, as well as Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, to urge them to uphold the law and their roles as trustees of our public water by rejecting the Nestlé permit once and for all.

Learn More: FLOW and the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation co-hosted a one-hour webinar (You can watch it here) on June 17, 2020, providing frontline, scientific, and legal insights into citizen-led efforts to challenge Nestlé, the Swiss-based corporate giant, in its quest to expand its groundwater grab in Michigan. Every year, Nestlé in its operations near Evart pumps hundreds of millions of gallons of public groundwater virtually for free, bottles it, and sells it under the Ice Mountain brand back to the public at a huge markup—while threatening streams that provide aquatic habitat and flow to Lake Michigan. Presenters included: Jim Olson, FLOW’s President and  Legal Advisor, and MCWC President Peggy Case.

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Final decision looms on permit to increase groundwater pumping granted contrary to science, law, and public interest