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Flint Residents Pay to Drink Polluted Water While Nestlé Pumps Great Lakes for Profit

CounterSpin interview with Peggy Case on water rights. ‘People Have to Strengthen the Laws Protecting the Water.’ Janine Jackson interviewed Peggy Case about Michigan water rights for the April 13, 2018, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Janine Jackson: It is impossible, really, not to connect two recent pieces of news: Residents of Flint, Michigan, have been told that the state that poisoned their drinking water will no longer provide them free bottled water. They’ll be going back to paying some of the highest prices in the country, some $200 a month, for water that may still be making them sick. The Washington Post reports at least 12,000 homes in Flint still waiting for replacement of lead pipes.

At the same time, Michigan approved a permit letting the Nestlé Corporation pump more fresh water out of a well in the Great Lakes Basin to bottle and sell at a profit, more than half a million gallons a day, the right to which will cost Nestlé…wait for it…around $200 a year. And that won’t increase, although the amount of water they are taking will—by 60 percent.

This is, in fact, how water rights work in this country, but if it feels wrong to you, you are far from alone. What can be and what is being done? Joining us now to discuss this critical story is Peggy Case. She’s president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. She joins us now by phone from near Traverse City. Welcome to CounterSpin, Peggy Case.

Peggy Case: Thank you.

JJ: This Nestlé in Michigan fight is a new fight for many people, but it’s not for you. When news articles refer to the years of fight that Nestlé, the biggest food and beverage company in the world, has faced since they moved into Michigan, a lot of that fight has come from your group, hasn’t it?

PC: Yes, that’s how our group was formed, actually, back in the year 2000, when we discovered that Nestlé was pumping 400 gallons per minute from a spring well in Mecosta County, Michigan. When they put up the bottle plant was when people realized they were even there. So our organization formed way back then to oppose it, because there were already damages showing up to a stream and a lake, and the environment was already being impacted with that level of withdrawals.

It took a nine-year court battle and a million dollars to win a case. It was a partial victory. We didn’t get Nestlé out of there. They had to reduce their pumping by a half, down to 218 gallons per minute, and the judge ruled that anything more than that is damaging to the environment.

So that’s a court precedent case that still stands on the books, and it’s important to know that, because almost two years ago, Nestlé applied for a permit to increase their pumping at a well in Evart, Michigan, 20 miles down the road from where the original battle was, to 400 gallons per minute, the exact amount they were told they really couldn’t take from Mecosta.

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It’s spring water, which is bottled as “Ice Mountain,” and they were given an increase of 100 extra gallons per minute with no public comment, no chance for anybody to go through the proper procedure, and we think it really violated the existing water withdrawal laws. Then they tacked on another 150 when they applied for the 400 permit. So it gets very complicated after a while and your head starts to spin. But the bottom line is that Nestlé’s wanting to take even more out of a stream that’s already damaged. So of course we’re contesting that again.

On April 2, Nestlé was granted the permit for 400 gallons per minute. Eighty thousand people sent in public comment. Out of those 80,000, only 75 thought Nestlé should pump and get that permit. The rest of them were all opposed to it. We were told by the Department of Environmental Quality that those comments don’t matter, that they were following the rule of law, and they could grant the permit.

Now, we know they intended to grant it all along. So it depends on how you read the law. They read it in Nestlé’s favor. We say that it can be read quite differently, can be read to show that that permit can’t be delivered.

So there are several issues that are unresolved, that should have been resolved before the permit was issued, and one of them has to do with the township. The township denied a permit for a booster station, which is necessary for them to be able to increase their pumping to 400 gallons per minute, and so Nestlé took the township to court. The judge ruled in Nestlé’s favor. The township voted unanimously, almost, to appeal that ruling. So that ruling is still sitting in limbo and is still a contested case, which means that the DEQ should not have granted a permit when there was a local issue that was unresolved.

So there are a number of issues that we are working on right now. We are going to contest the ruling, of course, that they could have the permit. That’s the first step in the process.

JJ: Right. Right.

PC: And I just wanted to say that I’m really glad that you started your comments out by mentioning Flint, because that’s been really significant for us. We have been connected to the Flint battles over water from the beginning. We were invited to come and consult in Flint four years ago, when things first began to develop. We find it totally outrageous that Flint is still in the condition that it’s in, and people are getting shut off from their water.

And you mentioned the high water bills. They’re even higher than you suggested. Some people we know are paying $350 or $400 a month for water that they still can’t drink.

JJ: Wow.

PC: And at the same time, the water that the city claims is good water, now, people are being shut off from that water as well. It’s not just that they’re not delivering bottled water to people, they’re also cutting people off at the tap, in the same way that they’ve been doing in Detroit now for a number of years. We think those issues, Detroit and Flint, are intimately related to what’s going on with Ice Mountain.

JJ: Absolutely. Absolutely connected. And on another level of connection, Nestlé’s spokesperson used to be, I’m not sure if she’s still there, but it used to be a woman named Deborah Muchmore, who was the wife of Dennis Muchmore, Gov. Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, who retired and then became a lobbyist. Meanwhile, the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, you’ve been funding yourselves largely with garage sales. I’m just trying to think about the forces opposed here.

PC: Yes, yes. Debbie Muchmore’s not with the governor, and neither’s Dennis. They’re not with the governor anymore. They’re private lobbyists.

JJ: Yeah, he retired and became a lobbyist. Oh, they both are. OK.

PC: Yeah, they both are gone. We won’t be surprised when the governor, who’s term-limited, is out of office in November, that he also becomes a lobbyist for a corporation like Nestlé. So it won’t surprise us if that happens.

But we paid off our $1 million debt, as you say: garage sales, bake sales, pasty sales, and the donations of our members over quite a period of time. We are totally a grassroots organization. We have no paid staff. We are all volunteers, so it was definitely a very grassroots effort.

What goes on at the state level is just the opposite kind of thing. Before the Flint crisis, the state had cut Flint off of revenue-sharing money that could have been used to fix their infrastructure. They get money taken away from them. Nestlé gets profits given to them, in the form of free water. It’s just completely unjust.

JJ: There is the public process thing, and there’s the DEQ, as you mentioned, saying, “Yes, we did get these public comments that were overwhelmingly opposed to this,” but they implied, not just that those just didn’t matter, but that they were somehow legally prohibited from caring about this intense public opposition. I don’t really understand that.

PC: That’s how they read the law, and they read it wrong. There are sections of the law—and we’re busy exploring those right now; we do have good legal counsel on our side—that do, in fact, require the public comments. So why would you require it if it’s irrelevant?

JJ: Right. There’s not been a tremendous amount of coverage, but those stories that have existed, that are deeper, will mention that this has been a twisty road for Nestlé, and that in fact they were initially rejected by the state’s water withdrawal assessment tool, that said, “You’re going to harm streams, you’re going to harm fish.”

But Nestlé appealed that decision, and it’s that appeal that is now being approved. So it’s not as though it was always obvious, you know, there’s no environmental impact, or no harm here.

PC: Yeah, the water assessment tool, which they got scored a D on it—that’s the lowest grade you can get—so they didn’t pass that. So they go to the site-specific review, which is not site-specific at all. It’s a computer model. It takes place in an office. They never visit the actual site to determine what’s really going on there.

So in both cases, you’re dealing with computer models; you’re not dealing with reality. Whereas, we walk out and walk around in the woods and tromp around in the streams and the wetlands, and take reporters who are interested to look at the actual site where the streams are dried up, where Nestlé claims that water is pumping at 250 gallons per minute, and you’re looking at a puddle that’s one-foot wide and there’s no water moving in it at all. They were given a lot of expert testimony, legal testimony, extensive, that was submitted as part of those 80,000 comments. They chose to ignore that as well.

JJ: I guess it’s a question of, “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?” Because Nestlé’s natural resources manager for Michigan says, “We never take out more than nature’s bringing back in.”

PC: Yes, that’s probably Arlene, right?

JJ: Yes.

PC: Yes. We’ve gone to their dog-and-pony shows, which is what we call them, where they do their PR work. It’s very fancy, charts and graphs, and they keep passing the same information out to people all the time. The other issue is that they create 3,000 plastic bottles—I can’t remember whether it’s in an hour or what. So there’s the plastic bottle issue as well. Another story.

JJ: It’s really all sides of it, though, and the connection to Flint, and it all is of a piece. Absolutely. We can all see these connections. But it’s also that people can see that this is an issue of whether water is a right, of whether corporations can take a vital public resource, because, as I said, this is the law of the land.

PC: Yeah.

JJ: The law says if you can pump it and extract it, you can get it essentially for free, and sell it at a profit.

Well, that’s only going to increase. That’s only going to come to your state and your community. And yet the lesson seems to be that elected officials are not going to necessarily be on the public’s side, and it’s going to be down to people advocating for themselves. And I guess I would just ask you, what would you say to people who hear that now a company, Nestlé or another company, is coming to their community to pump their water out from under them?

PC: Well, one of the things that has to happen is that people have to strengthen the laws that are supposed to be protecting the water. Because we do have the public trust doctrine in Michigan, which requires that the state of Michigan protect the water for all of us. And if that were actually honored, they wouldn’t be able to come and take it and send it off in bottles elsewhere, and they wouldn’t be allowed to destroy the environment.

In 2008, however, the state of Michigan weakened its laws a bit. They gave themselves the loophole to send it out as much as they wanted to, in small plastic bottles that end up in the Pacific Ocean. There’s some pieces of that Safe Drinking Water Act that could be used by the government to protect the water, but they don’t choose to use those pieces of the law.

So I would tell people, “Get those laws in place that actually make the government protect the water.”

Particularly it’s important that the state laws get strengthened, and that the people who are paying attention continue to put pressure on the various agencies to do it. Our agencies, like the Department of Environmental Quality, at the same time that they’re not doing what they should be on this, they are being defunded themselves. So they don’t have the resources to do most of the work that they should be doing anyway.

And the state legislature is busy trying to pass laws that would take away their right to even regulate anything. They want industry to sit on a board that oversees the regulations of themselves. So there’s three bills in our legislature right now that are just horrible. So people need to contest those. They need to talk to their legislators, and make sure that don’t let those pass through the legislature unnoticed. That kind of stuff.

JJ: And when the company says, “Oh, you know what, this new permit is going to call for unprecedented levels of monitoring and oversight”…

PC: Hmm, hmm. And we’re glad about that.

JJ: Right.

PC: But we’re saying that all these years, Nestlé’s doing its own monitoring is the fox watching the chicken house. We’re saying that that monitoring must be done by an independent agency, like the US Geological Survey. We’re making that demand. It can’t be Nestlé monitoring itself.

JJ: All right, then. We’ve been speaking with Peggy Case. She’s president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. You can find them and follow their work online at Peggy Case, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

PC: Thank you for having me.

Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/host of FAIR's syndicated radio show "CounterSpin." She contributes frequently to FAIR's newsletter Extra!, and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC's "Nightline" and "CNN Headline News," among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW's Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an MA in sociology from the New School for Social Research.