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Crowd shouts “Do your job!” at state environmental agency at hearing on Nestle water withdrawal

A packed public comments hearing on the recent Nestle permit.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Detroit resident Nicole Hill speaks in opposition to Nestle's proposed plans to withdraw 400 gallons a minute for its Ice Mountain bottled water brand.

About 500 people showed up to a public hearing in Big Rapids hosted by Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality last night. Almost every one of them spoke against Nestle’s plan to pump 400 gallons of water a minute to sell under the company’s Ice Mountain bottled water brand. 

They had other complaints, too.

Nestle is already the largest water bottler in Michigan. Right now, the company pumps 250 gallons per minute from its existing well near Evart, Michigan.

Many people cited specific concerns about depleting water resources near Nestle’s existing well near Evart, Michigan. Others worried the first-of-its-kind permit could open the door to other bottling companies who want to pump more than 200,000 gallons a day.

Detroit resident Nicole Hill seemed to sum up the underlying feeling in the room.

“Nestle is so greedy!” Hill said.

Hill and a dozen others said it is “outrageous” that Nestle is able to pump such a large volume of water on one side of the state, while people in Detroit and Flint pay some of the highest water rates in the country.

Ludington resident Karen Opperman said the state should collect more than the annual $200 dollar fee the permit would cost Nestle.

“For the citizens of Michigan and frankly as a former public school teacher I’m pretty cheesed off we’re not getting anything out of this deal,” Opperman said.

A handful of people spoke up for Nestle, but the crowd was arguably even tougher on Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.

“Ef the DEQ,” Flint resident Tony Palladino Jr. told the MDEQ panel, giving them the bird as he approached the microphone.

A number of people brought up MDEQ’s role in the Flint water crisis, noting criminal charges against five current or former employees at the agency. But it wasn’t only the busload full of Flint residents who gave MDEQ grief.

One woman suggested the agency put out Nestle propaganda because charts MDEQ made available compared Nestle to other, much larger water users – farms, a steel company, paper companies and power companies. She ended her comments by ripping up the paper flyer and encouraging others to do the same.

“We want to know: where’s the director? When we come to these hearings we want to speak to the leadership. Why is she not here?” Sylvia Orduno, with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, demanded.

“We need the DEQ to step up and do its job and when I’m talking to people out in the hallway they’re telling me ‘well this isn’t our responsibility, you’ve got to go to your elected officials.’ No, you have been entrusted with this responsibility from the federal government and you need to do your job,” Orduno said.

At that point the crowd got to its feet, shouting “Do your job! Do your job!”

“Okay, thank you, people. We hear you. We hear you. We hear you,” said MDEQ’s Phil Roycraft, who works at the Cadillac office.

MDEQ says it cannot consider public support for or opposition to a permit when making a decision. The agency has received more than 50,000 comments on the proposed permit so far.

An MDEQ spokeswoman said the agency can only evaluate if the water is safe to drink and that there are “no adverse impacts to the watershed." A video presentation loop before the hearing informed residents MDEQ would evaluate "environmental, hydrological, and hydrogeological conditions" and was interested in gathering information about those issues.

The agency will accept public comment through April 21st.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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