Michigan – a state surrounded by water – is drowning in controversy. For years, Nestle, the world’s largest food and beverage
company, has bottled Michigan’s water for next to nothing and sold it at great
profit. Now, the state has greenlit the company’s request to pump even more,
despite widespread opposition. And all Nestle has to pay for these millions of gallons of water it gets a year is $200. And this, in a territory where Native
American tribes have treaty rights. There is a perception around the world that
Nestle goes into poor communities with lax regulations, entices them with the
promise of jobs and then takes their water, sells it back to them at a profit. We have to go where the water is at. What do you think Nestle should do? Go home to Switzerland. We’re walking up to see the White Pine
Springs well, where Nestle pumps 250 gallons of water a minute that it
bottles under its Ice Mountain brand. Despite massive opposition, Michigan has
just approved Nestle’s request to increase that amount to 400 gallons of
water a minute. And all Nestle has to pay for these millions of gallons of water
it gets a year is $200, which locals here are furious about. John McClane has worked as a surveyor in this area for over 30 years. He and Peggy Case are members of
Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, an organization that’s been
fighting Nestle for nearly two decades. So we’re looking at Nestle’s well over there. That’s Nestle’s White Spring well. And it’s fenced off because obviously we
cannot even get close to it. You can get within 20 feet. Since 2005, Nestle has
extracted more than 3.4 billion gallons of water from Michigan. The state doesn’t
charge extraction fees for water like it does for oil and gas. And because Nestle
owns this land, the company can take as much water as it wants for a $200-a-year
permit fee *if* there’s no harm to the environment. But locals here say the
damage is clear. Well, this is supposed to be the headwaters of Chippewa Creek. Where it starts. Where this Creek begins. According to Nestle, there should be
water here. Don’t see much. In order to grant Nestle’s request to pump 400 gallons per minute, the state required the company to run its plan through a
computer model, which determined there *would* be an adverse impact on the
environment. But Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, overruled
those findings, and instead relied on data provided by Nestle to push the
permit through. The final hurdle was a public comment period, during which the
DEQ was flooded with more than 80,000 comments against Nestle’s request, and
only 75 in favor. But they approved it anyway. Why are you opposed to what
Nestle is doing here? Well, we’re opposed to bottled water and we’re opposed to privatizing water. They’re taking the water, putting it in plastic bottles,
selling it outside of the watershed and making a huge profit off of water that doesn’t belong to them. The water belongs to the people. Locals we spoke to accuse Nestle of trying to cover up traces of environmental
damage by offering to replace local infrastructure, like this culvert, where
water markings show how levels have dropped significantly over time. So the water used to be up that high, and now it’s this low? Yeah, two feet higher, which would have placed it up above the stones here. So you guys, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, made noise about how you can tell the water has gone down, and right away they
offered to replace the structures? At the next public meeting, they made that offer. Do you want them to do that? No. Why? Because it would destroy this evidence here. The fight for resources in this region
goes back centuries. Desmond Berry is a tribal citizen of the
Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. A treaty dating back to
1836 gives the tribe rights to the land and water in this area. The tribe spent
more than a year lobbying the DEQ against Nestle. Our treaty rights are
under threat by Nestle, a corporation that proposes to withdraw groundwater at
unprecedented levels, which will have an effect upon surface waters within our
treaty ceded territory where our way of life is dependent upon access to those
treaty reserved resources such as fisheries, such as wildlife, plants, animals. Have you seen that happen, so far? We’ve seen that happen in this area
where we’re standing right now, we should probably be in knee-deep water, and we’re not. And who’s that fault for that? Nestle’s that fault for that, because
about 2,000 yards behind us is their well. Nestle operates several well fields
across Osceola and Mecosta counties, including the White Pine Springs well.
Opponents say the surface waters of the two local creeks and river are suffering
as a result. The water Nestle extracts gets pumped to the small town of Evart
and then trucked to the Ice Mountain factory in Stanwood, where it’s bottled
and sold all over the Midwest. For years, critics have accused the company of exploiting lax water laws in economically depressed areas. Jobs. That’s what this tiny town of Evart had hoped for. More than 44% of
residents here live below the poverty line, but it’s rich in water. And for over a decade, Nestle has been purchasing a lot of that water from two of the town’s municipal wells. City manager Zachary Szakacks credits Nestle for saving his town. How much water are they getting from this well? 500 gallons per minute. And what are they paying for that? $3.50 per thousand. That sounds like a good deal for Nestle. It’s a great deal, but you just got to think of everything that Nestle has to do to get that water produced. They have to maintain this well. This well, to replace it, would be almost $1 million. Well, $1 million, one could argue, is a drop in the bucket compared to their profits worldwide and … Oh, it could be. It could be. So what is in it for the city of Evart, then? The revenue we generate annually from them. How much is that? I just looked at the numbers for 2017, and basically we generated $313,000. Is that significant for a city like Evart? Oh, it’s major for a city like ours. Despite hopes, Nestle never built a
factory in Evart. The few jobs that exist here are at the transfer station, where
water pumped from wells gets trucked to the Ice Mountain plant in Stanwood – 40
minutes away. Instead, Nestle helped finance things like new softball fields,
a state fairground and a new well. Did Nestle effectively buy out your town? No, not at all. Where do you come up with that? I mean, they’ve- They have not bought out our town. All they’re doing is purchasing spring water from us. It’s frustrating. We’re not like puppets. But Evart residents Maryann Borden and her daughter Rhonda feel differently. OK, they built new softball diamonds across the street from us. But we already had softball diamonds over at the fairgrounds. I mean, the things that they say they have given us, and maybe they’re a little nicer, but we already had those things. Maryann has lived in this home since 1953. Her two children grew up here, playing in this backyard creek. They claim they’ve witnessed noticable changes since Nestle came to town. What should be a coldwater stream where trout thrive is now warmer, narrower and more shallow. So what do you think is going on? Well, somebody is sucking the water out of my creek. And who do you think that somebody is? I think that somebody is Nestle. And they’ll say you can’t prove that. However, they are the only large corporation that is sucking water out of my stream by the millions of gallons that has moved into my township. Nestle agreed to speak to us at their Ice Mountain plant in Stanwood. In 2016, the company reportedly sold more
than $343 million of Michigan water under its Ice Mountain and Pure
Life labels. But that’s just a fraction of its worldwide footprint. Headquartered
in Switzerland, Nestle has over 8,500 brands in at least 80 countries. Arlene Anderson-Vincent is the natural resource manager for Nestle Waters North America. Why do you think there was so much local opposition to Nestle increasing their pumping there? We have lots of strong partnerships with residents and local businesses and business leaders. I’m not sure how much local opposition there is. Well, I’ll give you an example. We filmed a few people, several people I spoke to who were standing on the side of the road and fishing trout.
And we’d say, “How’s the fishing going?” One man literally said, “Well, I don’t catch as many thanks to Ice Mountain.” What do you say to him? The science just doesn’t show that. I also received lots of pictures of people saying, “Look how healthy the trout streams are.” So … So you’re not concerned that the area’s being depleted at all by Nestle’s pumping? I’m not concerned that the area’s being depleted. There’s genuine concern among locals, who say, “Once Nestle starts pumping to 400 gallons a minute, our ecosystem here will suffer.” What do you say to those people? The science does not show that. We are very confident in the science. We looked at it very conservatively. 400 gallons a minute is a very conservative number, as to what that well could pump, without negatively impacting any of the ecosystems. We study the ecosystems, we study the streams. But Nestle’s science relies on subcontractors the company hires itself. Does Nestle believe that water is a fundamental human right? Most definitely. It is a human right. It is most definitely a human right. There is a perception around the world that Nestle goes into poor communities with lax regulations, entices them with the promise of jobs and then takes their water, sells it back to them at a profit. How do you respond to that? I can’t speak to the perception, per se, but from the science perspective, we have to go where the water is at. So a lot of times, those are going to be more rural areas, because that’s where we have thick aquifers. It’s not heavily industrialized. So that’s where, from a science perspective, why we’re in this area, why we’re at White Pine Springs and why we’re in Stanwood. In 2016, bottled water surpassed soda for the first time, to become the number-one beverage in the U.S. Here in Michigan, just days after the state greenlit Nestle’s request to pump more water, the governor announced Flint residents would no longer be receiving free bottled water. People we met in Flint called out the irony. Tax Nestle and give it to Flint! That’s a slap in the face, that’s all I have to say. I mean, how would you feel if you had a $200 water bill and a billion-dollar company was getting a billion dollars’ worth of product for free? Despite public outcry, Nestle’s presence in Michigan appears unstoppable. In the ideal scenario, what do you think Nestle should do? Go home to Switzerland. I’m serious. Go home. We don’t want bottled water here. And we don’t want corporations taking the water and turning it into a profit. Period. Hey guys, it’s Dena. We did a lot of coverage of water problems for this season on Direct From From Cape Town, to Flint, to the Nestle story here. Check out the Direct From playlist to catch all of those episodes and more. Be sure to like and share this video, comment on it, and subscribe to AJ+. I’ll see you soon.