DEQ to extend public comment on Nestle water request

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Amid an influx of public concern, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality said it plans to extend — for the second time — the comment period on a bottled water company’s request to increase the amount of water it is withdrawing for its operation in Stanwood.

Nestle Waters North America has sought state approval to increase the amount of water taken from an underground aquifer in Mecosta County from the current 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons. The reservoir has been used for the company’s Ice Mountain brand of bottled water.

The request alarms many local conservationists, who has complained that the permitting process has kept the public in the dark as Nestle has quietly been allowed to withdraw more than the 150 gallons per minute its original 2001 permit called for.

When Nestle submitted its permit request in July, the DEQ initiated a public comment period that ended Nov. 3. Local environmental groups said they were unaware of the permit request until just before the period ended, so state officials agreed to extend the period to Dec. 3.

On Monday, however, a DEQ official said that period would likely be extended again as comments from the public have continued to pour in opposing the request for increased withdrawals from the aquifer.

“We are looking at extending the comment period until January and possibly February,” said Carrie Monosmith, who supervises the environmental health unit in DEQ’s Office of Drinking Water and Municipal Assistance. “We’ll also be asking for a public hearing.”

Late Monday, Nestle welcomed the public feedback that an extended comment period would bring.

“We want to operate cooperatively with the local community,” said Christopher Rieck, Nestle’s head of media relations.

For Nestle, increased withdrawal would boost its plans for a $36 million expansion of the company’s operation in Stanwood. Rieck said research has shown that the aquifer would not be harmed by a rate of 400 gallons per minute.

“We have had extensive studies going on int this area over 16 years about (the aquifer) and the surrounding environment,” he said. “The spring source can sustainably supply the water requested in our application.”

But Peggy Case, president of the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, challenges Nestle’s assessment.

“The story is that Michigan water, which is supposed to be protected by the state, is being siphoned and taken out of the watershed by a private corporation and sold for profit,” Case said. “We want (EPA) to do an environmental assessment, which has never been done — never — to see what effect this has on the environment.”

Nestle operates 100 monitoring wells in the area to evaluate how its operation affects the water table. The plant currently employs 250 people, and its expansion would add up to 20 more, according to the company.

The expansion is likely to move forward with or without permit approval, said Arlene Anderson Vincent, Nestle’s natural resources manager.

About the permitting process, Anderson Vincent said the company worked regularly with local officials and non-governmental groups and stakeholders to keep them informed on the 2015 and 2016 permit requests.

Case and others in Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation are also concerned with the state’s handling of Nestle’s permitting in the last two years. In 2015, Nestle quietly was given permission to increase its withdrawal from 150 gallons per minute to 250 gallons.

The DEQ followed state law by publishing notification of both last year’s permit request and this year’s in the department’s newsletter and holding a public comment period as required by the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act, Monosmith said.

The minimum requirement, created by 2006 and 2008 changes in state law, allowed Nestle’s 2015 and 2016 applications to go largely unnoticed.

“We only found out two weeks ago,” said Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. “It was a surprise.”

Monosmith said one problem was that Nestle’s new permit is the first filed under the amended Section 17 of the Safe Drinking Water Act — a section devoted specifically to bottled water. Because of the current confusion, she said DEQ officials would likely handled the next situation differently.

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