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Water & Sanitation

Nestlé's Bottled Water Business Is Sucking This Michigan Town Dry, Critics Say

Flickr: Steven Depolo

About two hours west of Flint, Michigan, a town where residents haven’t had access to clean, safe drinking water for years, is a sprawling complex where the Swiss company Nestlé produces nearly 5 million bottles of clean, natural spring water from the ground there every single day.

Those bottles sell for $1 or $2 around the country, and last year, bottled water sales in general outpaced soda sales for the first time in US history. It’s big business, and Nestlé is again looking to expand its operations in Evart, Mich., according to a report in The New York Times.

The company already uses nine wells to pump the state’s water into its manufacturing facility; now, it wants to pump 60% more from one well near Evart. Its application to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has caused a backlash in town, where residents say they can see their local water sources being depleted.

Read More: Why You Should Absolutely Never Drink Bottled Water Again

Maryann Boden told the Times that the creek behind her house was once 24 feet across; now, it’s about half that.

“What happened? Nestlé happened. That’s what I think,” she told the Times.

The town’s zoning board rejected an application from Nestlé to build a new facility to increase its pumping ability, but the company is appealing. The state environmental department has received 14,000 comments from the public about the matter, according to Michigan Live.

“Having anybody take away some of the very best water that should be going into the creeks and the Muskegon River and eventually Lake Michigan, that’s a big deal,” Jeff Ostahowski, vice president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, told the paper. “That Nestlé does it for free? That’s just crazy.”

Nestlé doesn’t operate entirely for free, but it does pay the same price for use of the town’s wells that residents pay — $2.30 per 1,000 gallons — and can pump as much water as it wants on land it owns with pumping systems it maintains for a $200 permit fee, according to the report.

Read More: Poisoned Water in Flint: What You Need to Know

Residents in town pay the same water rates as the company, though the median income in Evart is $19,000 a year. Nestlé Waters North America, a division of the parent company, is the world's largest bottled water company, according to Michigan Live, which has covered the company’s expansion in the state extensively.

For those low fees, the company can produce two bottled water lines, Ice Mountain, which is sold across the upper midwest, and Pure Life, which is sold nationally.

“Spring water is a very different thing, a precious source,” Nelson Switzer, chief sustainability officer for Nestlé Waters North America, told the Times. “We bring that to the people, that convenience, that ability to reseal, to take it with them, to have it when they need it. That’s a very unique idea, a distinction.”

Read More: From Flint to the Philippines, Water Is Power

Nestlé does pay for an environmental protection fund and has paid for recreational facilities for the town, as well as a well replacement after the company found the old one had toxins in it. The company also maintains that it monitors the wells to ensure that the process doesn’t adversely affect the environment, and has data to prove it.

But that assertion doesn’t mean much to residents like Borden, who say that the company’s arguments just don’t add up.

“I can’t understand how they can take so much. How does it recover from that massive removal? It’s millions of gallons. It doesn’t go back into our aquifer, because they’re putting it in a bottle and shipping it somewhere else,” she said.