Congress quizzes Nestle about Michigan water-bottling operation
By Todd Spangler
Detroit Free Press
Published December 12, 2007
WASHINGTON – A Nestle official was asked at a congressional hearing today about whether the company continued to pump groundwater from its Michigan wells this summer as a stream fed by underground aquifers fell to dangerously low levels.
Heidi Paul, vice president of corporate affairs for Nestle Waters North America, responded by saying the company’s scientists say its Mecosta County pumping facilities aren’t hurting water flow and that stream levels like those seen along what is called Dead Stream aren’t unusual.
“There are low flows and high flows for water bodies, naturally occurring,” she said.
The exchange came as the long-running battle between Nestle and environmentalists in Mecosta County reached Capitol Hill, with Rep. Dennis
Kucinich, an Ohio Democrat and presidential candidate, convening a House Oversight subcommittee hearing to discuss the environmental impact
of bottled water operations.
Kucinich, a former Cleveland mayor, called the hearing to help determine whether the federal government needs to be more involved in decisions about operations like Nestle’s in Mecosta County, which is allowed under a current agreement to
draw 218 gallons a minute, or as much as 114 million gallons a year.
That agreement, however, was reached after courts rejected claims by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. Paul also noted in prepared testimony that the company’s Ice Mountain pumping and bottling facility in Michigan employs 277 people with an average employee wage of $60,000.
She said in Michigan and elsewhere, Nestle has been a good corporate citizen, basing “all our pumping decisions on the science, which says what is
a sustainable use.” Bottled water, she said, is a much healthier product that other big water users like soda.
And there are other, even larger users of water in Michgan – like electricity production, the Kellogg Company in Battle Creek and Gerber Baby Foods in Fremont. Any rules placed on bottled water should apply to other users, officials said.
As for the low levels seen this summer on Dead Stream, even MCWC’s Terry Swier said it was possible that the low levels were caused by beaver dams.
But Swier, who testified before the subcommittee, said there have been instances
when the company continued to pump at high rates during times of low flow, essentially diverting Great Lakes water – the water from the groundwater
aquifer flows into streams, which run into the lakes – for commercial reasons. She said stronger rules are needed at the state and federal level to block such moves.
“Our water is our heritage and our culture,” said Swier. “It must be protected for our future generations.”
The subcommittee hearing was what Kucinich said was the first on the issue of bottled water diversion, but the subject of water – and particularly the effect of diverting it from the Great Lakes – is gaining interest in Washington. Last month,
some Michigan members of Congress warned against any efforts to take water from the basin to bail out fast-growth areas lacking water, or facing drought.
Meanwhile, state legislators are considering a compact among governors of states in the basin, which would limit removal of water to that which can be taken in 5.7-gallon vessels.
While that would not necessarily stop water bottlers like Nestle, states would still be allowed to put stricter regulations in place. Some critics, Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan among them, believe the compact doesn’t go far enough and have called for its defeat.
Kucinich said with global warming a growing threat, the federal government’s role in managing groundwater needs to be considered.
“The federal government could, but generally hasn’t, taken other steps to prod the states to better groundwater management,” he said.
Many of the witnesses talked about the need for more money to do groundwater mapping and to hold water bottlers to specific standards like requiring “spring” water to be drawn from springs, which could encourage the drawing down of groundwater levels.
The hearing also focused on scientific and regulatory testimony from Michigan experts. Wayne State professor Noah Hall discussed the general lack of federal statutes pertaining to water withdrawals while David Hyndman, an associate professor of groundwater hydrology at Michigan State, talked about
the effect on streams.
“For every gallon of water pumped out of groundwater, there is one gallon of water lost to streams in the watershed,” Hyndman said. “High capacity bottled water extraction in headwater locations can cause large percentage reductions in
the flow of streams.”
Contact TODD SPANGLER at
202-906-8203 or at