HOW WE GOT HERE: Nestle’s Money Mountain

HOW WE GOT HERE: Nestle’s Money Mountain


Where exactly is Ice Mountain? I would have to guess the Ice Mountain is in Colorado Uhhh, Mt. Rainier Montana It’s Michigan spring water. The Swiss company Nestle has been pumping Michigan water under the brand Ice Mountain for 17 years bringing the company an annual profit of
some 300 million dollars and for billions of gallons of pristine spring
water, Michigan charges Nestle less than a thousand dollars per year. Bottled water is more popular than ever. 10 years ago the average American drank
about 29 gallons of it per year. In 2017, that figure was up to 42 gallons. HUFF: It makes me think of my grandmother. She was 96 and a half and she said who in their
right mind is gonna pay for a bottle of water. BINGHAM: Two years ago for the first time ever bottled water topped carbonated soft
drinks as America’s most popular beverage. That water comes from places
like Osceola Township in the city of Evart. This rural region sitting at the gateway to northern Michigan is part of the Muskegon River watershed. It’s a very water rich area, gets a lot of rainfall, and Nestle has access rights to springs
in the area. The FDA says that in order for water to be labeled spring water has to come from a spring aquifer which is a specific type of shallow groundwater
that meets the surface somewhere. Nestle pumps water from wells here for its brand Ice Mountain. Enough for millions of bottles a day. And it’s perfectly
legal thanks to the reasonable use doctrine which holds that nobody really
owns the groundwater and everyone has the right to use it in a reasonable
fashion. It’s the same principle used by farms and public utilities there’s no
state tax license fee or royalty imposed only minor clerical fees. In Nestle’s
case that’s $200 per facility for a grand total of $800 per year. Nestle also
pays a residential water rate on a few wells within the city of Evart. ELLISON: Water issues in Michigan are highly emotional for a lot of people. The idea that a
global company of the size of Nestle can get its raw material for free doesn’t
sit well with a lot of people. Especially because that resource which a
lot of people see as being essentially owned by the wider public is then being
turned around and sold back to a public for a profit. It’s become the new gold all
over the world and corporations are privatizing it. BINGHAM: Peggy Case is president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation which has been protesting Nestle’s practices for almost two decades. CASE: The morality of
these issues is just as important as the legalities. We think that water has to
remain in the commons. That doesn’t happen when you turn it over to a
corporation like Nestle and let them make a huge profit from it. BINGHAM: In 2016, Nestle applied to increase pumping at it’s White Pine Springs well in Osceola
Township going from a maximum capacity of 150 gallons per minute to 400 gallons
per minute. The public might never had known about the request if it weren’t
for a discovery by Grand Rapids Press reporter Garrett Ellison. ELLISON: I get a email from the State of Michigan, an environmental calendar, and so I saw
Nestle Waters you know section 17 review and caught my attention because
obviously Nestle’s got some history in Michigan and I noticed this about three
days before the public comment window was set to expire. Once our story went up
the public outcry was immediate and intense. Despite the public’s opposition the
permit to increase pumping was granted in 2018. A lot of the comments that the
state was receiving were in opposition to Nestle’s business practice in general. The statute that regulators had to follow is pretty specific to, “Does this withdrawal
impact the natural resources of that particular area?” BINGHAM: The state of Michigan
said its review of the permit application was the most extensive
analysis of any water withdrawal permit in Michigan history. But in every case it was Nestle giving the data. They claimed there’d be no effect whatsoever at 400
gallons per minute and we say, “No that’s not true there’s already in effect at 150.” HUFF: You see that historical water line there? And where the water is now? BINGHAM: Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation immediately filed legal action in state administrative court claiming the permit to increase
pumping was granted illegally. CASE: Arguing about the integrity of their computer models is the diversion the law that was put into effect says you have to have
real-time data. This is the kind of work we do this is called citizen science. HUFF: That’s the pond and this is like the mouth of the pond and the creek coming
back. BINGHAM: Rhonda Huff is the former vice president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and a fifth-generation Evart resident. She
grew up playing in the creeks here and says they’re not the same since Nestle
came to town. Well the one behind my mom’s house which is Twin Creek there are mud flats. I’ve lived on this creek, Chippewa Creek, for 27 years. Some say,
“Well it’s the dam.” But it’s been dammed and since 2010 we started noticing a lot
of differences. We’re getting new mud flats every single year. BINGHAM: A Nestle spokesperson would not go on camera for this project but in a statement said the
company takes great care to operate in a responsible and sustainable way to
preserve and protect the water and surrounding environment. Nestle also put us in touch with Dave Johnson who’s lived in Evart his entire life. I caught my first trout out of that Creek when I was 8-years-old. Almost 30 years later my
son caught his first trout out of the exact same creek. There’s been no decline to the ecosystem, wetlands, streams, ponds.
I’ve seen nothing but improvements. Nestle says it has contributed more than
427 million dollars to Michigan’s economy and pays 4.8 million dollars annually in state and local taxes. JOHNSON: When they come in and
started purchasing that water not at a commercial rate or a reduced rate but at
the same rate that residents pay that brought the city back financially. Nestle also points out that it has invested in the community here. While most of the
jobs that sustains are about 40 miles away at the bottling plant in Stanwood
Nestle has funded projects and effort like new softball fields and wellhead
protection measures and it sponsors local festivals and fundraisers. HUFF: They’ve built new ball diamonds that everybody’s ecstatic about and they’re nicer than
what we had. Do I want them to do more? I don’t know because that’s like saying we accept them and I don’t. BINGHAM: The state approved Nestle’s request to increase pumping just days after it announced it would stop free water delivery to Flint,
the Michigan city that gained global attention after lead was discovered in
its drinking water. What happened in Flint really did affect the way the people of Michigan reacted to Nestle. The idea that we have this city that can’t
drink its water and just across the state a little ways a global company is
getting it for free, millions and millions in gallons per day, really just
did not sit well with people. BINGHAM: Nestle continued donating water to Flint and by the end of the year launched a marketing campaign promoting its contributions.
TV AD: Some people have forgotten about Flint but Nestle Waters never did. CASE: It’s a PR stunt. My take on it is that we have forced them to use some of their money
to do a much more aggressive PR campaign than they ever would have had to do if
we hadn’t been combating them. BINGHAM: Nestle pumps water all over the U.S. and each state charges differently. Texas charges based on acres used. In Florida fees and
permitting can cost more than ten grand. Maryland charges nothing. There have beenattempts to change the law in Michigan to charge Nestle a license fee or tax or
to limit the amount of water it can take ELLISON: They really haven’t gone anywhere
because industry and agriculture and public
utility are gonna say, “Well hold on a second if you start changing the laws
how does that affect us?” The environmental community hasn’t gotten behind a pricing scheme either out of concern that companies can come in and
now they know exactly the process and how much they would have to pay and so
there’s some concern that putting a kind of system in place could lead to
actually more water bottling. BINGHAM: Nestlé’s plan to increase pumping is on hold as the court case against it continues. Meanwhile this rural Michigan
community is left divided. What if we do have an issue something that could affect these ponds and streams and groundwater, who’s gonna catch it without
Nestle here monitoring? We’re gonna drink those chemicals. HUFF: I go into a big store and see people hauling out Ice Mountain and it says Evart, Michigan on it and I
just want to shout, “Do you know where that water’s coming from?” Fill up a
reusable bottle. Each bottle of Ice Mountain tells a story of global capitalism and small-town politics the environment and consumerism. Ultimately we’re left with a question, who has the question, “Who has the rights to this water?” It was late 2016 when MLive.com broke
the story about Nestle seeking to increase pumping in Evart. That legal
and permitting battle continues. You can learn more about the water rights debate
in Michigan and in other states at MLive.com/howwegothere

5 thoughts on “HOW WE GOT HERE: Nestle’s Money Mountain

  1. Great job. Make Nestle pay to improve the roads in Michigan. Why should I pay $.45 more per gallon of gas for road maintenance and improvement while Nestle extracts millions of dollars of resources from Michigan and pays nothing. It's just looting Michigans' natural resources. Where is the "free market" ? Why isn't this resource sold or not sold to the highest bidder ? (e.g. other water bottling companies) Why don't we have a governor who can make these connections ?

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