Boxed Water: Better for the Environment?

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Bottled water has a somewhat controversial reputation in Michigan. For years, a debate has raged about the bottling and selling of the state’s water, with ongoing organizing by groups across the state in response to plans to expand water pumping and a debate in the courts and legislature over regulations.

Now, a new company is operating out of Grand Rapids called Boxed Water Is Better that bills itself as “part sustainable water company, part art project, part philanthropic project” that claims to offer a better alternative to bottled water.

It’s gotten a lot of hype in the media, but is it really better for the environment?

On its website, the company touts the fact that its containers are recyclable. But, you can’t recycle them in the Grand Rapids area. The containers are produced from trees in certified, sustainably managed forests and they take less energy to be produced–and shipped–than plastic bottles used by the rest of the industry. Moreover, the company gives 20% of its profits to “world water relief foundations” and “reforestation foundations” to offset the environmental impacts of its products. A lot of companies do that–Nestle gives money, Coca-Cola gives money–it’s just a way of diverting attention from the underlying problem of privatizing water.

Like most bottled water companies, Boxed Water Is Better relies on imported water, in this case it’s “carbon-filtered, purified water from Minnesota”–that means a lot of resources wasted on transportation. The company discloses that tap water is better for the earth but they say that they are offering a “better” alternative in a growing market for packaged water.

The problem is that producing such a product ultimately legitimizes the demand and makes people think that packaged water is necessary. Maybe it’s slightly better than buying water from Coca-Cola or Nestle, but in the end it’s still promoting a destructive industry.

Bottled water costs more, it’s typically no safer, and it’s less regulated than tap water. Moreover, environmental organizations and human rights activists have argued that access to safe water will be one of the pivotal issues of the 21st century. As water is privatized and bottlers move in, aquifers are dried up and water is diverted elsewhere–raising the possibility that access to water will be based on one’s ability to pay. At the same time, confidence in municipal water systems declines–so does their ability to be maintained.

Nestle Cancels Plans for Pumping Site in West Michigan

Nestle Waters of North America announced on Monday that it is canceling plans to pump spring water from a location in Blue Lake Township. A Nestle spokesperson said that the company has “no interest in moving further” with plans at the Owasippe Scout Reservation. The possibility had been opposed by township officials and is currently in the process that would guard against large-scale water withdrawal by enacting a resolution that would limit the amount of water that can be withdrawn. According to one city official, they are moving forward with the resolution in case Nestle is interested in other sites in the township.

Over the past year, Nestle has attempted to expand in Osceola County while possible pumping sites have been discussed around the state. Nestle’s water bottling operations have been opposed in Michigan since the company began pumping water in 2002. Groups such as Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Earth First!, and the Sweetwater Alliance. Ongoing court litigation continues in response to how much water Nestle can pump at its Ice Mountain bottling facility in Mecosta County.

Group Files Petition for Rehearing in Nestle Suit

<a href="http://www.savemiwater.org/"Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation filed a petition last week seeking a rehearing on a recent Michigan Supreme Court decision that limited the rights of citizens to seek legal action against corporations. The July 25 Supreme Court 4-3 ruling, agreed with lower court rulings that Nestle’s groundwater illegally harmed lakes, streams, and wetlands, but limited the citizen groups’ right to bring a lawsuit against polluters. The court determined that citizens have the right to bring the suit but no right to stop a polluter from destroying a lake and/or wetland on their own property.

Terry Sweir, president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, said of the ruling:

“It makes no sense to us. The Court says we have standing to prevent the damage to the stream and one lake within the affected area of Nestle’s pumping, but then says we don’t have the right to protect the lake and wetlands on Nestle’s property, even though these water resources are also harmed and within the same affected area.”

The group argues that the Supreme Court must reconsider their decision as it denies citizens’ their legal right to prevent Nestle from causing “undeniable harm” to Michigan’s water resources. Legal counsel for Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation argue that the Court may be preventing people from exercising their first amendment right to petition the government as well as striking down a “model” environmental law. That law–Michigan’s Environmental Protection Act–was written in 1970 and had for years given citizens the opportunity to pursue legal efforts to challenge polluters.

Michigan Group Praises Tap Water Instead of Bottled Water

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A recent report prepared by Food & Water Watch and released by Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation has concluded that tap water is better than bottled water for people’s health, costs less, and is better for the environment. These findings contradict the claims of the bottled water industry, which has launched multi-million dollar advertising campaigns on the basis that tap water is less safe than bottled water. In part due to campaigns by the bottled water industry, the United States consumes about 26 gallons per person of bottled water per year.

Among the report’s findings:

  • Bottled water costs hundreds or thousands of times more than tap water. Compare $0.002 per gallon for most tap water to a range of $0.89 to $8.26 per gallon for bottled waters.
  • The Food and Drug Administration regulates only the 30 to 40 percent of bottled water sold across state lines.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency requires up to several hundred water tests per month by utility companies while the FDA requires only one water test per week by bottling companies.
  • Nearly 40 percent of bottled water is simply filtered or treated tap water.

    U.S. plastic bottle production requires more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually, enough to fuel 100,000 cars.

  • About 86 percent of the empty plastic water bottles in the United States land in the garbage instead of being recycled.

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation and Food & Water Watch are encouraging people in Michigan and across the United States to “take back the tap” by choosing tap water over bottled water whenever possible and supporting increased funding for safe and affordable public tap water.

Possibility of Another Water Bottling Operation in Michigan Discussed

According to the Traverse City Record Eagle, members of Kalkaska’s Downtown Development Authority (DDA) are considering asking Nestle Waters of North America to open a water bottling plant in Kalkaska. Citing economic difficulties plaguing the northern lower Michigan community including an unemployment rate of 7.5%, DDA member John Wheeler was quoted in the Record Eagle arguing that it makes sense to exploit the resource that the community has in order for economic gain. While the idea has not made it much further than Wheeler who is planning to arrange a tour of Nestle’s Mecosta County plant, it is another potential expansion to water bottling operations by Nestle in Michigan. Already, Nestle has been given approval to pump more 216,000 gallons of water per day in Osceola County and is considering expanding in Evart, Michigan and Newaygo County. These are both in addition to a massive water bottling operation in Mecosta County, a plant that drew significant public opposition and whose operations are still being litigated.

The increase in water bottling operations makes it clear that the Water Legacy Act, signed in 2006 by Governor Jennifer Granholm to “protect” Michigan’s waters from large-scale diversions and withdrawals, is doing nothing to stop the privatization of the state’s water resources.

Nestle: Citizen Groups Respond to DEQ Decision

The DEQ approved Nestlé’s “request for determination”, pumping 70 million gallons of spring water yearly from Twin and Chippewa creeks in Osceola County near Evart would not have an adverse impact. This came after only a 3-week public comment period after the DEQ and Nestle went public with the proposed decision on Christmas Eve.

Although the DEQ announced the public comment period would be extended until March 15, 2007, this week’s DEQ decision ignored the extended comment period. Apparently Nestle refused to waive the deadline for the DEQ’s decision as required by last year’s amendments to Michigan’s water laws. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation – leading the fight against Nestle – relied on the extended time period and retained experts to provide meaningful analyses, only to be stabbed by the DEQ’s premature decision.

The DEQ largely ignored comments, particularly those related to the effects on flows and levels of the headwaters of the two trout streams. Nestle and DEQ’s decision used selected measurements of the stream which may have missed the primary area of effects and adverse impacts to a bountiful brook trout fishery.

Nestle claims that it is a “good corporate citizen.” Despite the company’s claims to the contrary, a trial court and the Court of Appeals found pumping caused substantial harm to the stream and wetlands in Mecosta County, and the company recently mounted an attack on the heart of Michigan environmental laws to block citizens’ rights to maintain lawsuits to prevent such harm from happening.

“Now Nestle apparently has refused to cooperate with the DEQ’s extension of time for public comment on the effects of its pumping on two blue ribbon trout streams,” says Terry Swier, President of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.

Dave Dempsey, Great Lakes Policy Advisor for Clean Water Action, said, “The legislature failed last year when it passed a new water law that allows water to be commercially exploited. This decision shows Michigan’s new water law is a failure.”

Jim Olson, legal counsel for MCWC, said, “These type of private water exports that diminish our lakes and streams, whether in ships, trucks, or bottles, should not permitted to continue. If the citizens of Michigan do not keep strict control on who, when, where and for what purpose someone is allowed to export our water for private gain, we will find ourselves in dire straits when the global tidal wave of demand for water comes crashing on our shores.”

Nestlé has also been investigating a new “spring” water source near the White River in Newaygo County for the past three years. Nestle wants to truck the water from the Osceola and Newaygo sites about 20 miles to its Ice Mountain plant in Stanwood.

This was reprinted from the blog Black Bear Speaks due to the shortage of information about opposition to Nestle’s plans.

DEQ Approves Nestle Waters Pumping Plan

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) approved a plan today by Nestle Waters North America to withdraw 216,000 gallons per day from a site near two trout streams in Osceola County. The DEQ has determined that the plan “will not cause an adverse resource impact” under Michigan’s water laws. In a 15-page document explaining its decision, the DEQ asserts that the withdrawal will not harm fish populations and that it is significantly less than the 691,200 gallon per day maximum amount. The DEQ also explains that they accepted public comment despite not being legally obligated to solicit comments on the proposal, speaking in a generally favorable manner of a comment process that lasted a little more than three weeks and was publicly announced in the Grand Rapids Press on Christmas Eve. In an interesting portion of the document, the DEQ responds to submitted comments and refutes them, specifically rejecting arguments that look at the larger questions about the environmental impact of large-scale water withdrawal and instead focusing on what the DEQ termed “a very narrow administrative decision.”

In a gesture reminding the public of how much it values its input, the DEQ is intending to keep receiving comments until March 15, despite the fact that its decision has already been made. For its part, Nestle has said that it would probably not begin pumping water before late 2007. That gives opponents of the plan time to organize a coordinated and sustained campaign to stop the pumping operation before it begins, although there has been no indication that the infrastructure or energy for a lengthy campaign of direct action and boycotts exists in the area.

Nestle/Ice Mountain Looking to Expand Michigan Water Bottling Operations

Nestle is seeking permission from the state of Michigan to expand its water bottling operations in Michigan. Nestle currently pumps 270 million gallons of water per year in Michigan and sells it under the label “Ice Mountain” for substantial profit.

Nestle Waters North America, who currently bottles 270 million gallons of water in Michigan under the Ice Mountain label each year, is seeking to expand its water bottling operations in Michigan. According to an article in the Muskegon Chronicle, Nestle wants approval from the state to pump an additional 70 million gallons of spring water from the headwaters of two trout streams (Chippewa and Twin Creeks) that flow into the Muskegon River near Evart in Osceola County. The company is also considering seeking permission to pump “millions of gallons” of water from a site in Newaygo County’s Monroe Township at the headwaters of the White and Pere Marquette rivers. The White River is a state-designated “Natural River” and the Pere Marquette River is a federally-designated “Wild and Scenic River,” both of which are therefore given greater legal protections than other Michigan rivers. Nestle–who admits pumping water at the Evart site will reduce the flow of the Muskegon River by 70 million gallons per year–claims that their water operation will not affect the environment. Nestle also is considering building a second water bottling plant in the state, possibly in Evart, a city northeast of Big Rapids as well as investigating four additional sites in Newaygo and Wexford counties.

The proposed expansion sites would be a significant increase in water bottling operations in Michigan, which are currently centered around a water bottling plant operated by Nestle/Ice Mountain in Mecosta County. From that plant, Nestle makes millions of dollars annually while selling the Michigan’s water resources despite the fact that water exists as a type of commons owned by the people and that “the human right to drinking water is fundamental to life and health” according to the United Nations. <nestle has made millions privatizing Michigan’s water while paying nothing for the state’s water. According to reporting in LiP Magazine, Nestle pays minimal rent on a 99-year lease it signed with the owner of a hunting preserve on which the plant is located and a reported $85 annual well fee. As water has been bottled and sold by Nestle, some 45,000 Detroit residents have had their water shutoff over the past three years for failing to pay their water bills. The state of Michigan has failed to provide subsidies for low-income residents in Detroit who face high utility bills of all kind–not just water–while it gave $9.6 million in tax breaks to Nestle.

Before Nestle/Ice Mountain began pumping water in Michigan, it was greeted by a vibrant campaign against water privatization that consisted of community organizing, protests, direct action, and legal challenges. The campaign, which ultimately failed to stop Nestle/Ice Mountain, did manage to limit the amount of water that Nestle could pump pending ongoing litigation. This happened despite a campaign of government intimidation after the Earth Liberation Front attempted to burn down a pumping station used by Nestle in Rodney, Michigan. The resistance to water privatization has been worldwide and has been strong in the Midwest where activists and resident in Wisconsin and Michigan have organized to stop the privatization of the region’s freshwater. While no specific plans have been announced to challenge the plan by groups such as Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation or the Sweetwater Alliance, people can always boycott Nestle products and make plans to participate in the public comment process on the proposed pumping sites. According to an email from Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is expected to make a decision on the proposal in January of 2007 and then accept public comment. Nestle/Ice Mountain is going to explain their plans publicly at a meeting on January 10 at Monroe Township Hall.

Campaign to Recall David Allen over Privatization of Grand Rapids Schools Begins

Last night, the Grand Rapids Local Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement held a press conference to announce the start of a recall campaign against school board member David Allen. Allen was the president of the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education when it voted to privatize the district’s bus service.

Yesterday, representatives of the Grand Rapids Local Organizing Committee of the Millions More Movement held a press conference to announce the launch of a campaign to recall Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education member David Allen. The campaign–undertaken by the group’s Committee for Positive Community Change–is targeting Allen for his role in advancing an agenda of privatization in the Grand Rapids Public Schools. The group explained that Allen was president of the Board of Education when the proposal to privatize the district’s bus service came up and that Allen voted in favor of the measure in spring of 2005 and failed to use his influence as board president to oppose the plan. According to the Millions More Movement, there was widespread public opposition to the privatization effort but the school board, and Allen in particular, acted with “arrogance” and failed in their elected responsibility to represent the desires of the community. The privatization of the district’s bus service has resulted in cuts in wages by $3 to $6 per hour (depending on the wage) for drivers and the elimination of benefits. Between January and July of 2007, the group will be going door-to-door to gather signatures to place the issue on the ballot and to educate the public about the campaign. A potential replacement for Allen is expected to be announced in the future. The campaign has gathered the support of at least some of the district’s bus drivers, who stated that they supported the campaign but could make no further comment because of pending legal issues.

The campaign to recall Allen builds on months of research done by the Millions More Movement beginning in January 2006 when the group first began conferring about recent attempts (bus drivers and janitors in 2005, substitute teachers in 2006) to privatize elements of the Grand Rapids Public Schools. Based on their findings, the Millions More Movement charged that there has been a “large, vast conspiracy to privatize the district” in place by some members of the community since 1993. They went on to state that in “smoke-filled rooms” individuals and organizations–with their eyes on the $8,000 each GRPS student is worth in federal and state funding–are plotting to advance their agenda. This is being done through a strategy of creating the impression of “failing” schools and then offering privatization to the public as a solution. One strategy that could be pursued according to the Millions More Movement is a corporate takeover under the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. Such a takeover is permitted under No Child Left Behind in school districts that fail to meet federally mandated standards.

The press conference was covered by four local corporate media outlets with WZZM 13, WXMI 17, WOOD TV 8, and WOOD Radio airing stories on the press conferences. Channels 13 and 8 both cited David Allen as saying that he expects the recall effort to be thrown out and that he is unaware of why he is focus of the group’s campaign.

The Fight against Water Privatization in Wisconsin, Michigan, and the World: Midwest Social Forum 2006

In a workshop titled “Grassroots Struggle Against Water Privatization: The Fight against Corporate Water Bottling Companies” at the 2006 Midwest Social Forum, four panelists outlined recent struggles against water privatization in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, in the United States, and across the world.

In a workshop titled “Grassroots Struggle Against Water Privatization: The Fight against Corporate Water Bottling Companies” at the 2006 Midwest Social Forum, four panelists outlined recent struggles against water privatization in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, in the United States, and across the world. The panel consisted of Don Roy of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Arlene Kanno of Wisconsin-based Concerned Citizens of Newport, Orin Langelle of the Global Justice Ecology Project and Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch, all of whom have been active in these struggles both in their local communities and within the global context of resistance to the commodification of water.

Arlene Kanno, who is involved with Concerned Citizens of Newport, a group that successfully fought and prevented a bottling operation near the Wisconsin Dells, outlined what has become a fairly typical process through which a large multinational company—in their case Nestlé—comes to an area and seeks to develop the necessary infrastructure for a large bottled water factory. In this case, Nestlé entered an unincorporated area inhabited by many farmers and people who had moved out of Wisconsin’s urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison seeking a more quiet life in the country, and sought to build a 2 mile pipeline for water along with an additional well at the bottling plant as part of a 320 acre development to host the operation (70 acres of which would be paved). Nestlé initially claimed that they would leave the area if the people wanted them to, and once opposition to the project was organized, Nestlé reneged on its promise and stayed in the area despite requests by citizens. The group then went to their state legislator who was unwilling to help them, citing the fact that they were a “freshman” legislator and essentially had no power to do anything if they were to be reelected. In response to the failings of the legislature to deal with Nestlé’s water bottling, the group began an extensive public relations and popular education campaign that emphasized the plant’s threat to prairie restoration efforts, its devastation of wetlands, ruining of the area’s “quiet” way of life, and the taking of the area’s water for private gain. The group also worked extensively to organize sportsmen, nature groups, native groups, poets, artists, and others that had an interest in protecting the area. When it became clear that Nestlé and the state were not going to bow to public pressure, the group filed a lawsuit based on the fact that water is the public trust (although the idea of a “public trust” is not a statue in Wisconsin and has no real power) and that the Wisconsin Environmental Protection Act mandates the government’s protection of water resources (although this seems void if the government wants a harmful development). Following an initial delay, the lawsuit was one by the Concerned Citizens of Newport, although they have continued organizing after stopping the plant because their victory resulted in Nestlé moving its bottling efforts to Michigan.

Of particular interest to residents living in West Michigan was Don Roy’s discussion of the struggle to stop Nestlé from pumping and bottling water in Mecosta County. Roy explained how Nestlé, a large multinational corporation, came into Michigan almost immediately after its defeat in Wisconsin and sought to apply the lessons that it learned there in combating the grassroots movement that formed in Michigan to oppose Nestlé’s bottling operation. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) was one of the groups to come together opposing the bottling of Michigan’s water, objecting to it based on the potential for environmental impairment and harm with the operation being near streams, lakes, and wetlands; the commodification and privatization for profit of a vital public resource (Nestlé only paid for its permit and pays the state and its residents no additional money for taking its water); and the fact that bottling water is not a sustainable form of economic development. MCWC formed in December of 2000 and has seen its membership grow to 1,800 and recently was successful in obtaining an out of court settlement to a case in Michigan Circuit Court that requires Nestlé to limit how much they are bottling (400 gallons per minute) and to submit data on their operations to a hydro-geologist working with MCWC. The group is currently in the process of petitioning the Michigan Supreme Court in a case that seeks to stop the operation completely and is considering other avenues to pursue the struggle against water privatization in Michigan. Roy cited the Michigan Water Law, passed in early 2006, as an inadequate means of protection with a large loophole for bottled water in that it declares that any bottling operation is not a diversion if it is bottling water in containers that hold less than 5.7 gallons (of course, the average bottling plant in the United States bottles 300 million gallons per year). MCWC is currently considering a constitutional ballot initiative for 2006 that would protect Michigan’s water in light of the failure of the state’s governors and legislature to take adequate measures, is advocating for the extension of the bottle deposit law to include non-carbonated beverages in light of the fact that 90% of water bottles are never recycled, and looking towards increasing coordination with other environmental groups and hosting a possible annual conference on water privatization in Mecosta County.

While companies such as Nestlé can make as much as one million dollars per day in profits from bottling plants such as those in Mecosta County and frequently receive multi-million dollar tax abatements, there have been several successes in the fight against water privatization. Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch detailed several of these recent victories against water privatization in the United States including New Orleans rejecting a bid by Suez to privatize the cities water due to grassroots organizing, a successful organizing effort in Felton, California that resulted in citizens taxing themselves to buy back their water from RWE Germany, and an ongoing struggle to prevent the privatization of Lexington, Kentucky’s water by RWE Germany. Roach also referenced Food and Water Watch’s “Faulty Pipes” report on the history of water privatization and its failures as a model that provides for human needs. The corporations seeking to bottle and privatize water in the United States are active around the world and have been met with resistance in areas such as Central America where companies such as Suez and Bechtel are being driven from the region by popular resistance and replaced with innovative structures like the cooperatives and review boards being developed to provide democratic models of water management. Panelist Orin Langelle expanded on the international resistance to water privatization and showed the audience a slideshow of photos from the International Forum in Defense of Water held this past March in Mexico. The Forum is held as an alternative to the World Water Forum that is sponsored by entities such as the World Bank and Coca-Cola and designed to commodify water rather than protecting it as a basic right.