Public comments show how much and why people oppose Nestle water withdrawal

Mar 6, 2018

Detroit resident Nicole Hill speaks in opposition to Nestle's proposed plans at an MDEQ public hearing April 12, 2017. The public comment period wrapped up almost a year ago.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

80,945 against to 75 in favor.

These numbers show the scope of the public opposition to a new proposal from Nestle.

The company wants to be able to pump a lot more water out of the ground in West Michigan that it can bottle and sell under its Ice Mountain brand.

Nestle can already pump up to 250 gallons a minute from a well in Evart, Michigan. Now it wants a new permit that would allow the company to pump 400 gallons of water a minute.

Nestle is the largest water bottler in Michigan.

Why it's so hard to know exactly how much of Michigan's water is bottled and sold

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality got an unprecedented number of public comments on Nestle’s latest request, initiated almost two years ago.  

81,862 people wrote the MDEQ about the new permit request. Only 75 comments were in favor. MDEQ marked 842 as neutral.

Matt Gamble, the Department of Environmental Quality supervisor who’s coordinating all the people responsible for this decision, says usually they read and respond to each comment.

“But that’s clearly not practical in this case,” Gamble said.  “We’d still be doing it if we were going to take it one comment at a time. So we had to have some way to capture the concerns of the public in a way that we could do it before the end of the decade.”

So DEQ devised a plan.

They read through several thousand public comments first and came up with 14 themes. Themes like “environmental damage” or “people want a public vote on the permit,” even “the DEQ is not objective.”

Then MDEQ hired several temporary workers to read through all of the comments and mark any of the 14 themes that applied.

Most comments mentioned these three themes: corporate greed versus people and the environment, water is not for profit, and privatizing water.

Below is a draft version of the breakdown on those 14 themes. Gamble notes the final numbers could shift slightly or the agency may combine themes.

He says category titles are “meant to be concise and should be considered along with the category definition and review explanation – texts that are not currently ready for release even in draft form.”

Credit Emma Winowiecki / Michigan Radio

In addition to all the comments in the graph, MDEQ received 9 letters from Tribal Governments and 8 letters from citizens groups that were highly technical and went directly to MDEQ staff for review. Gamble says they also got two petitions; one with 354,000 signatures and another with 8,000 signatures. Both were against the proposal.

Because many comments came to MDEQ via email, Gamble says they can’t always determine if a person lives in Michigan.

Gamble says the DEQ is considering the public comments under the “reasonable use” part of the evaluation. There’s a legal and a more scientific definition of reasonable use under the law.

But not all of these comments about privatizing water and corporate greed are going to fit into that.

“We got a lot of those. And some comments you open them up and they say ‘just say no’ and that’s just not… we’re not making a yes or no decision. That’s not what we’re being asked to make,” Gamble said.

Gamble says it’s more complicated than a ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ The DEQ is evaluating whether Nestle’s request meets the letter of the law. If it does, they have to approve it.

“And that’s the end of it,” he said, “We cant, we don’t have the power to say no arbitrarily. We can’t just say no for reasons that aren’t attached to the law.”

They can’t "just say no," even if the vast majority of the public wants them to.

It's taken so long to review the permit because many different state employees from multiple departments are weighing in on the decision, in addition to several citizen groups and native tribes, Gambel says.

It took five months for the MDEQ to sift through all the public comments. Plus, the type of permit Nestle wants is new, so it’s the first time the agency has gone through this particular process. 

Gamble would not commit to a timeframe for a final decision. But he told a gathering of water professionals last week state experts have turned the corner in the decision making process and are coming to a consensus.