FLINT — Peaceful music plays in the background. Residents wait for donations before dawn.
And Nestlé Waters North America is there to help, as workers load a semi-truck of the company’s Ice Mountain bottled water and head south to Flint.
“Some people have forgotten about Flint,” Flint water volunteer Sandra Jones says in a 32-second television ad for Nestlé. “But Nestlé Waters never did. Three years later, they’re still providing spring water, 100,000 bottles a week.”
The television ad and a similar one on radio have been in heavy rotation since late last year – and comes as Nestlé Waters faces withering criticism for taking groundwater from Michigan.
Last year, state regulators stoked outrage by approving Nestlé’s request to tap up to 400 gallons of water per minute from one Osceola County well for its Ice Mountain brand. The charge: A one-time $5,000 fee atop an annual $200 charge for the company that sold $4.5 billion in bottled water in 2017.
In other recent Nestlé ads, the voices of Michigan-based employees tout the company’s commitment to the state.
But the Flint promotions are the biggest talkers, drawing some backlash from critics who believe Nestlé is exploiting Flint’s water crisis while making millions off the water it slurps from Michigan.
On the ground in Flint, opinions are mixed.
“Nestlé has done a fantastic job. If Nestlé hadn’t stepped in, we wouldn’t have anything at all,” Kevin Croom, operations manager at Asbury United Methodist Church in Flint, who oversees water distribution there and says far more water is needed.
Dupree Pringle, a 57-year-old who helps deliver bottled water to homebound residents, said Nestlé’s contributions are “good for the City of Flint.”
But Jim Carnes, retired truck driver who takes picks up free Ice Mountain bottles from Asbury Church every Tuesday, calls Nestlé’s ads “a cover your ass type thing.”
“All that is, is to cover their ass because [former Gov. Rick] Snyder gave them permission to take all of the water,” Carnes said.
Click to hear radio spot:
Pastor Monica Villarreal of Salem Lutheran Church in Flint sees the ads as “exploitive” for a company that could pump enough water for 100,000 half-liter bottles — its weekly donation to Flint distribution centers — in 33 minutes from its Osceola County well.
Villarreal also wonders whether Nestlé’s self promotion in Flint leads folks outside the city to believe the city has enough water to meet the intense demands of residents who don’t trust their taps.
That includes new Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has suggested Nestlé’s promise to keep donating through April offers government officials time to contemplate the next phase for bottled water distribution.
Nestlé’s total donations to Flint are expected to reach 6.5 million bottles by April, including 5 million bottles since 2018. The company’s donations dramatically increased when the state announced it would halt its bottled water program.
Nestlé’s surge in donations to Flint came shortly after the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted the latest pumping permit, which drew a record 81,020 public comments to the DEQ — only 75 of which were in favor.
“Most of them related to issues of public policy which are not, and should not be, part of an administrative permit decision,” then-DEQ Director Heidi Grether said in awarding the permit in what she called “most extensive analysis of any water withdrawal in Michigan history.”
At the time, the DEQ said it could only review whether Nestlé’s extra pumping would harm the local ecosystem.
On the campaign trail last year, Whitmer was among a slew of Democrats who slammed the deal as a steal for Nestlé, particularly when Flint residents didn’t trust their own water— and the state was pulling back on relief efforts.
Nestlé has nine wells feeding its Michigan plant for its Ice Mountain brand. It pays $3.50 per thousand gallons it pumps from two of those wells owned by the City of Evart — the same utility rate residents pay.
But the DEQ permit at issue applies to a well just outside of Evart, in Osceola Township. It’s outside of any municipal water system, so Nestlé does not pay utility bills for what could amount to more than 210 million gallons per year
Michigan law generally allows property owners to take water under their land for free so long as it doesn’t interfere with river navigability or the rights of others.
And Michigan isn’t alone: Few states charge bottlers or other big water users such as farmers much money for withdrawals from their own wells.
Nestlé called its advertising campaign “successful’ in an emailed statement to Bridge.
“We have received a large amount of positive feedback from people across the state and in the Flint community, including positive reactions to our ad highlighting our work in the city,” the statement said.
“The ads were our way of continuing to publicly voice our support of Flint.”
Nestlé called some recent news stories about its operations in Michigan “misleading or incomplete.”
“We thought it was important for our neighbors to hear from us directly to learn more about our operations and our contributions to the community,” said the statement, which recognized water is “an emotional issue.”