The Switzerland-based Nestlé Global corporation is the largest packaged foods entity in the world, but the company has drawn the ire of environmental and water rights activists in recent years because of its controversial water privatization practices.
In the year 2000 at the second World Water Forum, Nestlé along with a few other corporations persuaded the council to change access to drinking water from a “human right” to a “human need.”
This allowed Nestlé more leeway in acquiring clean drinking water supplies in local municipalities, analysts say, granting them a framework to pump large amounts of it from aquifers and clean water sites across the world for minuscule rates before selling it back to locals and other customers worldwide in plastic bottles.
One of the company’s most high profile controversies has been unfolding in northern Michigan recently, where Nestlé previously sought to carry out what was called “the most extensive water withdrawal in history.”
The company was given $13 million tax breaks to pump water essentially for free, and Nestlé had planned to increase water withdrawals by up to 60 percent, siphoning water at a rate of up to 400 gallons per minute.
But the Nestlé plans hit a major snag earlier this month after the company lost a key court decision that could put the clamps on its ambitious plans in north Michigan.
Nestlé Claim on “Essential” Bottled Water Rejected by Michigan Court
Nestlé had argued that its bottled water business operations constitute an “essential public service,” during the trial, but Michigan’s second highest court denied their assertion on the grounds that the local community has other sources of drinking water, a report from MLive.com said.
The ruling came down on Tuesday, December 3, during which a three-judge panel reversed a lower court decision that had ordered Osceola Township to approve Nestlé’s plan to build infrastructure needed to market groundwater drawn from a wellhead near Evart, Michigan.
The decision will make it exceedingly difficult for Nestlé to carry out its aforementioned plan to increase water withdrawals from the area.
“(Nestlé) contends that the draw down will be modest, local, and not affect other wells’ ability to produce water,” the judges wrote in their 13-page opinion.
“Nevertheless, extracting the water and sending it to other places where it cannot return to the water table, and, critically, doing so faster than the aquifer can replenish, is an ‘irretrievable’ depletion unless the pumping is reduced or halted.”
Local activists were especially taken aback by Nestlé’s characterization of its bottled water business as “essential” during the case, and said it sets a bad precedent.
“If a private company like Nestlé is allowed to characterize their services as “essential” just because it happens to be water they’re putting in a bottle, it could lead to the proliferation of water privatization,” said Liz Kirkwood, director of the Traverse City environmental group FLOW.
According to Kirkwood, the decision could have far-reaching ramifications beyond the Nestlé case in Michigan. It could also impact a forthcoming decision by a major Michigan environmental department.
While Nestlé has explored plans to reach its 400 gallons-per-minute target, legal challenges and a pending decision from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy have halted them thus far.
Nestlé said that its draw down will be “modest, local, and not affect other wells’ ability to produce water,” the judges wrote.
But they ultimately ruled that the company’s plans could cause critical damage to the local aquifer.
“Nevertheless, extracting the water and sending it to other places where it cannot return to the water table, and, critically, doing so faster than the aquifer can replenish, is an ‘irretrievable’ depletion unless the pumping is reduced or halted,” they wrote.
Nestlé also tried to argue that it supplies bottled water to communities in emergency situations in order to constitute its operations as “essential,” but the judges denied the merits of this assertion as well.
“It is equally clear that, no matter how commendable it might be, doing so is only an incidental portion of plaintiff’s business,” they said according to MLive.com.
For more information on the decision, read the full article by clicking here.
You can also learn more about how the ongoing water pumping has affected wildlife and water levels in the area by watching a video below from the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation group:
RELATED READING: Why Nestlé Pays Next to Nothing for Michigan Groundwater (Mlive.com)