taps into trouble in Michigan
Jilted in Wisconsin, Perrier successor is caught in court
By Dan Egan
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
The bitter fight over Perrier's plans to pump spring water
into plastic bottles and ship it to grocery stores all over
the Midwest isn't really over.
The battle, which pitted environmentalists worried that
such an operation would harm area wetlands and waterways
against economic boosters thirsty for Perrier's jobs, has
spilled into Michigan.
And a judge's recent ruling there indicates that the
Wisconsin conservationists' fears might have been dead-on.
Perrier dumped Wisconsin in favor of a Michigan site
in May 2001 after fierce public opposition to its proposal
to draw as much as 720,000 gallons a day from a spring
in Adams County, near Wisconsin Dells.
"People were much more receptive in Michigan,"
Perrier Group of America CEO Kim Jeffrey said in the days
following the company's announcement that it would not
build in Wisconsin. "We're going to have a very successful
operation in another state, which will give the people
in Wisconsin an opportunity to see who we are. I don't
think that enough people did their homework on who we
Turns out Perrier, which is owned by Nestle, had been
doing its homework. The Swiss-owned food giant was simultaneously
courting the State of Michigan for the same facility.
And when Wisconsinites balked at the prospect of the private
sector bottling and profiting from what many saw as a
public - and fragile - resource, Perrier pounced in Michigan.
A year later, Perrier, now known as Nestle Waters, opened
its Ice Mountain bottling plant in Mecosta County, north
of Grand Rapids. Today the $150 million operation employs
147 people with a $7 million payroll.
But its future couldn't be cloudier.
On Nov. 25, Mecosta County Circuit Judge Lawrence Root
ruled in favor of a Michigan citizens group that sued
to stop pumping from the spring, out of concern that it
would harm a nearby stream.
"Nestle's pumping operations at the Sanctuary Springs
must stop entirely," the judge wrote in his 68-page
ruling. "I cannot identify a pumping rate that, in
this complex system, will not have actionable adverse
effects on these plaintiffs."
Those were the very worries held by some landowners near
the proposed Wisconsin site.
"What is happening over there is exactly what we
were concerned about happening here," said Glenn
Stoddard, an attorney for the Wisconsin citizen group
that sued over Perrier's plans in Adams County. "And
that is, by drawing down all these spring waters, they
are negatively impacting the surface waters in the area."
Root gave plant operators 21 days to shut down the pumps.
The order, which the judge acknowledged was "dramatic
and drastic," caught many in Michigan off guard.
"We felt the evidence clearly showed there was no
adverse environmental harm occurring," said Nestle
spokeswoman Deborah Muchmore.
Just hours before the shutdown order was to take effect,
Nestle got a reprieve from the Michigan Court of Appeals,
and the plant can continue to operate until its appeal
flows through the courts.
Nestle wasn't alone in its worries about the economic
impact of idling the bottling plant. Gov. Jennifer Granholm's
administration also weighed in when the Michigan Department
of Environmental Quality filed a legal brief supporting
Nestle's request for a stay of Root's ruling.
That the ruling put Nestle in a dicey situation, said
Jim Olson, attorney for the group that sued, is nobody's
problem but Nestle's.
"It was a huge gamble," Olson said of Nestle's
decision to build before the court case was resolved.
"The company has been one step ahead of the law the
whole time, and taking risks from day one. They moved
Nonsense, said Muchmore.
"The company didn't move forward with the building
of the facility until it had all its permits in hand,"
she said. "What Mr. Olson is referring to is the
fact that he and his (clients) were threatening a lawsuit,
and I don't think most companies can make good, sound
business practices based on a pending lawsuit."
But Root offered little sympathy for the economic crunch
he was about to put Nestle in.
"The prediction (threat?) that Nestle employees
will lose their jobs and the community lose a valuable
corporate citizen and taxpayer is entirely in the control
of the decision makers at Nestle," the judge wrote.
"They can develop alternative water sources that
do not present the kind of risks that this one does and,
after an initial capital outlay, continue bottling and
selling water. They came into this situation aware of
the risks and must now regroup to deal with the consequences
Muchmore says there are no alternatives if the company
is denied use of its four wells, which have the capacity
to pump about 575,000 gallons a day.
"We'd have to shut (the bottling plant) down,"
Nestle blames low rainfall
Root's ruling hinged, in part, on the idea that the wells
Nestle used to tap the spring would lower the water volume
in a nearby stream. That, in turn, would damage streamside,
or riparian, property owners.
"In cases where there is a groundwater use . . .
that is shown to have a hydrological connection to a surface
water body to which riparian rights attach, the groundwater
use is of inferior legal standing than the riparian rights,"
the judge wrote.
Muchmore says much of Nestle's appeal is based on new
data that show the company's withdrawals have little,
if any, impact on the stream and other area waterways.
"It looks as though Ice Mountain was blamed for
effects that were actually the result of way-below-average
rainfall," Nestle attorney Michael Haines said in
a prepared statement.
Olson called the judge's ruling "so important, so
"In this modern day, with the global thirst for
water, a court has decided private companies aren't going
to be able to exploit the integrity of lakes and streams,"
Nestle, however, cautioned that the ruling "is extreme
and holds serious and far-reaching implications."
"If Ice Mountain's insignificant effect is considered
a violation of MEPA (Michigan Environmental Protection
Act), then what water user - industrial, commercial, golf
course or farmer - would not be in similar violation?"
Caution from judge
Conservationists contend that the ruling will have no
such effect on those industries. Root also insisted it
should not be interpreted too widely.
"This case is not about preserving the Great Lakes
or allowing or prohibiting any diversion from them. .
. . This case is not a one-person 'referendum' on the
merits of the beverage bottled-water industry. . . . This
case is not about the redistribution of wealth. . . .
Finally, this case is most certainly not about public
opinion or political pressure," Root wrote in the
preamble of his ruling.
But for many people, the case is about all those things.
Although Muchmore noted that the amount of water Nestle
is tapping is minuscule compared with the volume used
for things such as agriculture and public drinking supplies,
she said some people just tend to seize upon it as an
"Frankly, I think there is, by some people, a stigma
against bottled water, and there is some amount of concern
over large companies," Muchmore said.
But, she said, those stigmas won't hold water in court.
"This thing is far from over," she said.
The case goes back to Root's courtroom Tuesday.