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Great Lakes Article:

Bottled water exports OK under proposed compromise
By John Flesher
The Associated Press
Published on NEPA News on October 12, 2005

Bottled water from the Great Lakes basin could be shipped elsewhere for sale unless prohibited by state law under a compromise water protection blueprint crafted by an industry coalition and an environmentalist group.

The National Wildlife Federation and the Council of Great Lakes Industries included the provision in a package of suggested changes to a water use agreement that the region's eight U.S. states and two Canadian provinces have been haggling over since 2001.

With a December deadline approaching, state and provincial officials asked the two groups _ representing interests often sharply at odds _ to seek common ground on issues that have been holding up a settlement.

The Associated Press obtained a copy of the compromise worked out by the industry council and the wildlife federation. They submitted it to the government negotiating team, which is holding its final scheduled round of face-to-face talks this week in Chicago.

"We don't know how the negotiators will receive the compromise that we worked out," Andy Buchsbaum, director of the federation's Great Lakes office, said Wednesday. "They may accept it, may reject it, may modify it."

The plan drew a mixed reaction from other environmentalist leaders. Some were particularly unhappy about the bottled water provision, which they believe could set legal precedents that could open the door to large-scale bulk water diversions.

"Once you punch a hole in the Great Lakes basin to allow diversion of some water, it gets bigger over time," said Jim Olson, an environmental attorney in Traverse City who represents a citizens group fighting the Ice Mountain Spring Water bottling plant in Mecosta County. "It will be difficult for the state to ever plug it."

Buchsbaum acknowledged the bottled water provision "was something we did not prevail on" in negotiations with the industry council, which represents about two dozen companies including Consumers Energy and Dow Chemical Co.

"We need more protections against bottled water exports," he said. "That said, it's not the biggest threat to the Great Lakes. Massive, large-scale diversions through pipelines and canals are a much bigger threat." So are some industrial uses of water within the basin, he said.

The industry council also made concessions, including stronger requirements for state water conservation programs, Buchsbaum said.

The Council of Great Lakes Governors agreed four years ago to develop a plan for shielding the waters from diversion to arid locations and encouraging conservation within the region. The negotiating team is working on a binding compact between the eight states and a separate agreement that would include Ontario and Quebec, known together as Annex 2001.

The council released a draft of both documents last year and a revised version in June. It has a December deadline for agreeing on a final plan to present to the governors, who would forward it to their legislatures for consideration.

Sam Speck, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and chairman of the negotiating team, said Tuesday the proposals from the wildlife federation and industry council were among many offered by groups that have given advice over the years.

The fact that one group of business and environmentalist leaders could bridge their differences "bodes well for building consensus" among others whose support will be needed to put the Annex agreements into law, Speck said.

But if the bottled water provision is any indication, it's far from certain that environmental and conservation groups will unite behind the compromise.

Many environmentalists contend bottled water shipped outside the basin should be classified as a "diversion," which the compact would disallow in most cases, although exceptions would be made for communities and counties that straddle the basin boundary.

"We don't make distinctions between whether water is diverted in a tanker, in a pipe or in a bottle," said Mike Shriberg, director of the Public Interest Research Group in Michigan.

Nestle Waters North America Inc., parent company of the Mecosta County bottling operation, insists bottled water is a food product like soft drinks and should be regulated no differently.

"The common understanding of a diversion is a pipeline or canal carrying bulk water to other places for various uses, including manufacturing," spokeswoman Deborah Muchmore said. "Bottled water is not used in that way. It's simply a beverage."

Under the proposal by the wildlife federation and industry council, bottled water would be classified as a "product," not a diversion. But the states and provinces could impose strict regulations on bottled water and even prohibit out-of-basin exports.

The plan would allow the moratorium on new or expanded bottled water exports that Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm imposed in May, according to a memo distributed by the wildlife foundation.

But Olson wasn't convinced.

"The state should not sign such an agreement because it would privatize a public resource," he said.

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