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Michigan Truth Squad: Democrat candidates blast Nestlé’s ‘free’ water

Update: Nestlé to allow feds to monitor water withdrawals in central Michigan
August 2018 update: Gretchen Whitmer wins Democratic primary for Michigan governor

The Democratic race for Michigan governor is getting spirited, but all three candidates still find plenty to agree on ‒ including criticism of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for granting Nestlé Waters North America permission to tap up to 400 gallons of water per minute (up from 250 gallons) from one Osceola County well.

Gretchen Whitmer, Abdul El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar each spoke out against the proposal, in some cases even before Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration granted the permit in April.

Although their language differed, all three candidates were accurate in their main argument: Michigan is charging next to nothing to allow the Swiss conglomerate to make a handsome profit off the state’s water.


The claims

At a March 22 event, Whitmer, the former Senate minority leader from East Lansing, said: "We have Nestlé, that's pulling as much ground water out as they want and pay a one-time, minuscule fee for doing it."

In remarks posted to social media, she said Nestlé is “pulling as much water out of the ground without paying for it.”

In April, El-Sayed blasted the state’s decision to end free bottled water to lead-contaminated Flint while approving the Nestlé permit, two very different but emotional water issues.

"I want you to think about the lack of empathy that this governor has shown. In the same week that he basically turned on the taps free of charge for Nestlé, he shuts it off for Flint,” said El-Sayed, the city of Detroit’s former health director.

The statement followed other criticisms from El-Sayed about the permit.

Thanedar, an Ann Arbor businessman, took to social media to call the DEQ permit “absolutely unacceptable.”

“Nestlé has taken enough of our water, and they've done so paying only pennies on the dollar,” Thanedar wrote.

The facts

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, according to City Manager Zackary Szakacs.  

But the increased withdrawals aren’t from those wells. And even in that case, Nestlé and other ratepayers are technically paying to deliver the water, not for the water itself.

“Whether you’re taking the water for growing crops, building widgets, drinking water or bottling it, we don’t pay,” Noah Hall, a professor of environment and water law at Wayne State University, recently told Bridge.

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 under the DEQ’s permit. Like other states, 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.

Nestlé has told Bridge it “pays the costs to build and maintain the infrastructure, energy and taxes, like all other Osceola Township businesses who do not rely on the neighboring Evart municipal supply.”

But then what’s the “one-time, miniscule fee” Whitmer mentions? Or the “pennies on the dollar,” from Thanedar’s Facebook post?

Nestlé, which sold $4.5 billion in bottled water last year, pays an upfront $5,000 fee to the state for the processing of its environmental permit, as well as a $200 annual fee.

Those offset administrative costs of processing the permits, but again, don’t pay for the water.

Whitmer, El_-Sayed, Thanedar

The verdict

Yes, Nestlé is basically getting the Osceola Township water for “free” or “without paying for it.” It’s also true that Nestlé pays the state small fees associate with its pumping — dollars that are dwarfed by its profits.

And while the candidates could have noted that other states also charge little for water, their statements nonetheless are accurate.


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