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Big Rapids — Hundreds of people attended a public hearing Wednesday, most of them opposing a bottled water company’s bid to dramatically increase the amount of water it withdraws from beneath the ground in Osceola County.

Environmentalists critical of a request by Nestle Waters North America to increase the amount of water it takes from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons say the plan could hurt northern Michigan wetlands if the company were permitted to drain more underground water. A company official rebutted the argument by saying foes were making accusations without any scientific evidence.

Critics honed in on the cost to the company for pulling more water from the ground: According to the DEQ, it would cost the company $5,000 for a permit application to withdraw about 210 million gallons a year, and an annual $200 fee for filing related annual paperwork.

“If Flint could pay that rate, their annual household cost would be less than 75 cents per year,” said Peggy Case, president of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, which opposes Nestle’s bid.

She said she was outraged that Nestle can withdraw water for a price that is proportionally far less than the amount paid by Flint residents for water they couldn’t drink in it’s lead-contaminated water crisis, a fact often brought up by those opposed to Nestle’s bid.

The fees are set by state law.

During the meeting on Ferris State University’s campus, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials tried to enforce a three-minute time limit per person for public comments, many from people bristling at the idea of draining even more water from underground.

Environmentalists who oppose the bid say Nestle’s permit should be denied because state law requires the company to offset impact to the local watershed with other projects meant to improve the environment. James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, claims Nestle has not done that, and said the company’s application to the DEQ notes that the increased withdrawal would reduce the watershed level.

Nestle representatives say the increase wouldn’t hurt the environment and criticize environmentalists for what they claim are facts not based on science.

“Any feedback that we receive always gives us a moment of pause. I mean, we’re a very thoughtful company, and we take any feedback or any information we get from our stakeholders very seriously,” said Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer of Nestle Waters North America.

He added: “It’s really important to look at the data and the science. All the comments that we have seen from others, they’re coming without any data. We need them to sort of substantiate that, if that is the case, because we’d like to learn more if there’s something we missed. Please, help us close the loop on that.”

Switzer said he doesn’t know how much money the company could lose if the bid to increase the water it pulls from underground doesn’t go through.

“ ... I don’t know how much,” Switzer said. “We don’t really look at it that way. We look at it in terms of our customers … the consumer is asking for a product and we’d love to be able to continue to deliver it and we will continue to deliver it, whether the increase is granted or not.”

The underground reservoir has been used for the company’s Ice Mountain bottled water brand.

Aquifers get naturally replenished through rain and snowmelt. The DEQ is evaluating what the predicted effects of the proposed withdrawal on the environmental and hydrological conditions of the aquifer.

No date has been set for the DEQ to make a decision following the end of the public comment period on April 21, department spokeswoman Melody Kindraka said. The department is working through “a great deal of information” and is trying to make a decision “as soon as possible,” she said.

Switzer said more important to Nestle are the “environmental, social and economic benefits” to Michigan that would come with the company’s increased withdrawal.

He said giving people access to fresh bottled water is “a huge benefit, obviously, and it empowers people.”

“It empowers them to be able to make different types of decisions, to have a healthier lifestyle,” he said.

But environmentalists say they can’t trust Nestle and worry the company is more motivated by profits than concern for preserving the environment.

“Privatizing water ... for profit is not what we should do. And this should be denied,” said Tom Thompson, who represented a local water conservation group, the White River Watershed Partnership.

Another speaker referred to Nestle as a “water baron” and was one of many who urged DEQ officials to block the company’s bid.

Opponents say the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality should conduct an environmental impact study to understand the effect on local watersheds from Nestle’s past withdrawals.

They said Nestle submitted its own study to the DEQ.

“It’s hard to take Nestle at face value when their own science contradicts their claims that it’s not impacting the watershed,” said David Holtz, Michigan chapter chair of the Sierra Club.

“Since Nestle came into town … it’s just been a very controversial issue with a lot of people about withdrawing huge amounts of water and doing it really on the basis largely of having to take Nestle’s word for what impacts it’s having,” he said.

More than 35,000 mostly negative comments about the water bid have flooded the DEQ, according to department spokeswoman Melody Kindraka. One group delivered a document with 350,000 signatures opposed to the plan, about 66,000 of which were signed by Michigan residents, according to the group that submitted it.

Another environmental group, Clean Water Action, delivered to the DEQ in March more than 5,000 letters opposed to Nestle’s plan.

mgerstein@detroitnews.com

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