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Reforms to water bottling industry in Michigan stall despite campaign promises from Whitmer

water bottles
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For years now, a water bottling company has been taking and selling hundreds of millions of gallons of Michigan ground water for minimal fees paid to the state.

Prior to winning the 2018 election to become governor, then candidate Gretchen Whitmer campaigned on tightening up restrictions to protect the state’s water and increase oversight over companies that pump and sell it.

But now in her second term, many of those reforms have not materialized.

WKAR's Sophia Saliby spoke with Anna Clark, a reporter for ProPublica who looked into this issue for a recent story.

Interview Highlights

On how BlueTriton, once Nestle, is able to pump and sell Michigan water

They pay this $200 administrative fee every year. We've also learned since that they also have to pay a fee associated with their serial number per site. It amounts to several hundred dollars per year. So in total, they pay less than $1,000 per year per site. And in exchange, they are able to withdraw large amounts of water, bottle it and sell it.

On how Whitmer campaigned on the issue in 2018

This was not just something that Governor Whitmer was commenting on just occasionally during her campaign. She really made this a major platform of getting some kind of control over the bottled water withdrawals here in Michigan, pointing especially to the company then called Nestle.

On potential reforms in the works

Since the governor was elected, I found nine bills that legislators proposed that would make some change to how we approach water withdrawals, not just for the bottled water industry but including them, or the bottled water industry specifically. Only one of them is on the table right now. It was introduced last September. It hasn't yet had a hearing.

Interview Transcript

Sophia Saliby: For years now, a water bottling company has been taking and selling hundreds of millions of gallons of Michigan ground water for minimal fees paid to the state.

Prior to winning the 2018 election to become governor, Gretchen Whitmer campaigned on tightening up restrictions to protect the state’s water and to increase oversight over companies that pump and sell it.

But now in her second term, many of those reforms haven't happened yet.

Anna Clark is a reporter for ProPublica who looked into this issue for a recent story, and she’s here with me now. Thank you for joining us.

Anna Clark: I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Saliby: For about two decades, it was Nestle that was pumping water out of Mecosta County. Nestle was actually acquired by the firm BlueTriton in 2021. So, a lot of names here. But how did that agreement first get started? And how is this company operating in Michigan now?

Clark: Of course, the bottled water industry, speaking broadly, has had a massive boom over the last 25 years. What used to be kind of a luxury item or an emergency item has now become an everyday item for many people.

And here in Michigan, it really took root in about the year 2000-2001 when a division of Nestle opened its first wells in Mecosta County, as you said. It's also now in Osceola County, just north of that, and Nestle pumped a great deal of water from those wells. It's sold the water as under the Ice Mountain brand or the Pure Life brand. And in 2021, it sold most of its North American brands to the company now that's called BlueTriton. So, they're still operating as vigorously as they have for some time.

Saliby: Why is this company essentially able to pump all this water for, I mean, change? I think it's like $200 per site per year?

They're able to do this because we do have this like, you know, well established precedent that you're able to use the water that is on the property you own. And it is, of course, a legally challenging thing to single out any particular company or industry in making changes to you know, trying to put limits on like how water is withdrawn.

Clark: So yes, they pay this $200 administrative fee every year. We've also learned since that they also have to pay a fee associated with their serial number per site. It amounts to several hundred dollars per year. So in total, they pay less than $1,000 per year per site.

And in exchange, they are able to withdraw large amounts of water, bottle it and sell it not only within the Great Lakes region, but beyond the natural basin which is a meaningful ecological point in how a lot of our existing water protections are designed. Like there's a purpose in trying to keep our water within its natural basin to make sure we're replenishing it.

They're able to do this because we do have this well established precedent that you're able to use the water that is on the property you own. And it is, of course, a legally challenging thing to single out any particular company or industry in making changes to trying to put limits on how water is withdrawn.

But there have been folks throughout the years who have pointed out that there are opportunities to expand protections, to close loopholes or to impose some kind of royalty or tax on bottled water companies that withdraw our natural resources similar to how oil and gas companies pay an extra fee for that.

Saliby: At one point, that group included gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer in 2018. What were her specific proposals when it came to reforms at the time?

There have been folks throughout the years who have pointed out that there are opportunities to expand protections, to close loopholes or to impose some kind of royalty or tax on bottled water companies that withdraw our natural resources similar to how oil and gas companies pay an extra fee for that.

Clark: Yeah, what was really interesting to me in going back to this time period is how this was not just something that Governor Whitmer was commenting on just occasionally during her campaign. She really made this a major platform of getting some kind of control over the bottled water withdrawals here in Michigan, pointing especially to the company then called Nestle.

One thing she put in her water plan was this idea of using some kind of severance tax or royalty similar to how mining companies are taxed in order to, as she put it, control the siphoning of water in our state and ensure that there's some kind of public benefit.

She was really contrasting this, as many were at the time, with the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, kind of pointing out that it seems like a lot of Michiganders are being too charged excessively high bills for drinking water that they may or may not be able to trust. And meanwhile, we have multinational corporations that are benefiting from virtually free water.

[Gov. Whitmer] was really contrasting this, as many were at the time, with the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, kind of pointing out that it seems like you know, a lot of Michiganders are being too charged excessively high bills for drinking water that they may or may not be able to trust. And meanwhile, we have multinational corporations that are benefiting from virtually free water.

Saliby: Has she explained why she hasn't made good on those campaign promises?

Clark: She has not. We did, of course, reach out to her in our office many times, and we're very interested in just if they had a change in view, if they wanted to hear about other priorities taking precedent. We did not receive a comment from them directly about this.

Other lawmakers who are from the same party have pointed out that there has been a number of crises since she has taken office from the pandemic to the Midland dam collapse, that obviously diverts a leader's attention and point out that she's also made meaningful investments in drinking water infrastructure and water standards in this time, and that there's just a crowded agenda, especially in the last year and a half since Democrats took the leadership of the legislature.

Saliby: So, what is being proposed to change the current system, maybe from lawmakers that have a little bit more push right now to look at this issue? And how likely do you think those will be passed based on the general mood about water bottling reforms?

Clark: Since the governor was elected, I found nine bills that legislators proposed that would make some change to how we approach water withdrawals, not just for the bottled water industry but including them, or the bottled water industry specifically. Only one of them is on the table right now. It was introduced last September. It hasn't yet had a hearing.

There has been an effort to pass what one lawmaker calls, the green amendment, basically an initiative to pass a constitutional amendment through a supermajority vote in the legislature that would essentially affirmatively say that all people in Michigan have a constitutional right to clean water, clean air and so forth. And they say that this kind of affirmative stance would give the state some more leeway in making decisions that consider the public benefit of Michiganders when it comes to many things, including large water withdrawals. So, that has a formidable challenge of passing, but it is on the table right now.

And there's also been a funding request that's been on the table for about a year and a half now from a state commission that is deeply involved in trying to make sure that our water withdrawal system works. And we're in budget discussions right now. There is an opportunity to fund the basic maintenance of the system we have now even if we're not yet ready for major reform.

Saliby: Anna Clark is a reporter for ProPublica. Thank you for joining us.

Clark: Thank you so much.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Sophia Saliby is the local producer and host of All Things Considered, airing 4pm-7pm weekdays on 90.5 FM WKAR.
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