Michigan is a state with plenty of water. Bordering on four of the five Great Lakes, the state is nevertheless the site of one of the worst potable water crises in the country, with the unresolved lead contamination of the water supply in Flint still requiring the state to spend around $22,000 per day on bottled water to distribute to residents.
Given the expense the Flint situation has forced the state to bear, one can imagine that Michigan residents were not particularly happy when Nestle, the world’s largest food company, asked the state for permission to nearly double the amount water it pumps from the White Pine Springs well in the Great Lakes Basin in western Michigan for its bottled water business.
Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, a state agency set up by anti-environmental regulation Republicans, was tasked with responding to the company’s request and dutifully asked the public for comments on Nestle’s plans to bottle even more of the state’s water supply for private profit.
The response was overwhelming, with 80,945 Michigan residents writing that they were opposed to the plan and just 75 agreeing with Nestle’s pumping plans.
Yet despite the massive number of citizens opposing the idea, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved Nestle’s proposal today, allowing Nestle to increase its water extraction from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons per minute from the spring, according to NPR.
The agency claims that despite the nearly unanimous disapproval of the move, they were forced to approve the permit allowing for the expansion of pumping based on the legal merits of the application, not on the sentiment of the public.
“In full transparency, the majority of the public comments were in opposition of the permit,” MDEQ Director C. Heidi Grether said about the permit’s approval, “but most of them related to issues of public policy which are not, and should not be, part of an administrative permit decision.”
The state says Nestlé has to submit a completed monitoring plan and submit it to the MDEQ for approval but otherwise is set to increase production.
“We don’t have the power to say no arbitrarily. We can’t just say no for reasons that aren’t attached to the law,” said MDEQ source water supervisor, Matt Gamble, “even if the vast majority of the public wants them to.”
With such a large number of public comments to read and consider as part of their approval process, the state agency decided to break the comments down into categories ranging from the potential environmental damage of the pumping to calls for a public referendum on the increase.
“The interesting thing to me was the top three themes — by far — are: [one,] corporate greed versus people and the environment; two, water is not for profit; and three, worries about privatizing water,” said Michigan Radio’s Lindsey Smith.
Each of the top three categories that Smith mentions was cited by about 40,000 people as their reason for opposing the permit.
With climate change threatening water supplies around the world, the battle over private exploitation of public resources is only going to continue and grow. If Michigan’s capitulation to Nestle is any indication, the public will need to pay attention and fight even harder unless they want to cede control their access to clean water to multinational corporations.