Nestlé’s plan to increase dramatically the amount of publicly owned water it hoovers up from Michigan was met with overwhelming public rebuke: 80,945 formal public comments opposed the plan, with only 75 reportedly in support.
But documents obtained by TYT under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act show that even fewer people supported Nestlé’s plan than the 75 the state originally reported. And some of the support appears to have come from government officials (one of whom submitted duplicate comments), people with direct financial ties to Nestlé or the oil and gas industry, and a student doing it for extra credit.
As Karen Edlin, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s (MDEQ) special projects FOIA coordinator, told TYT, “Ongoing quality control and assessment of the 75 comments originally identified as being in favor of the Nestlé permit have resulted in 18 of those comments being moved to other categories.”
Instead, just 57 comments were found to be applicable to TYT’s request for all public comments in favor of Nestlé’s proposal.
Also, a TYT analysis found that the remaining 57 comments included 13 duplicate messages from repeat senders, bringing the number of unique supporters down to a paltry 44.
Nestlé's plan, submitted earlier this year, was to increase the amount of public water it pumped from the state’s groundwater table in Osceola County from 250 gallons per minute to 400 gallons. This was part of a $36-million expansion of Nestlé’s Ice Mountain bottled water facility.
Nestlé’s request — which was granted by MDEQ in April on the grounds that it met the requirements of the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act — sparked controversy, coming on the heels of the Flint water crisis. In 2016, a federal state of emergency was declared due to dangerous levels of lead in Flint's drinking water.
Lead poisoning in children can cause developmental disorders. In pregnant women, it can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, and premature births. Between 6,000 and 12,000 children were exposed to lead in Flint, according to the United Way.
Flint’s contaminated water led to an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease that killed 12 people between 2014 and 2015, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
The Flint water crisis started in 2014, when Michigan tried to save money by switching from Flint’s traditional water sources to the cheaper Flint River. The move was aimed at saving $5 million but has since cost the state at least $45 million.
Opponents of Nestlé’s proposal have taken issue with the fact that the corporation would gain access to some of the country’s most valuable water essentially for free, and objected to the commodification of a basic human need.
Swiss-based Nestlé, the world's largest food and beverage company, might have seemed like an obvious source of revenue. But the only cost to Nestlé for its vastly increased use of Michigan’s water is the annual $200 permit fee it was already paying.
Four of the emails expressing support for Nestlé’s proposal came from people connected to a foundation that lists Ice Mountain, Nestlé’s bottled water brand, as a sponsor. One of the comments, calling Ice Mountain “an exceptional neighbor in our community,” is signed by Patricia Donegan, who serves as president of Mid-Michigan Honor Flight, a veterans appreciation foundation sponsored by Ice Mountain.
A second email signed by Donegan states, “No one can accurately predict what the results on our environment, will be, [sic] with 100% assurance.” A third email is signed by Donegan along with her husband Robert.
The fourth email associated with the foundation comes from Dian Diehm, vice president of Mid-Michigan Honor Flight: “I am in complete favor of the permit to pump more water at the Evert location.”
Several of the emails were signed by local government officials. Two identical emails were sent from Jenny Rounds, a Republican Osceola Township Clerk. Another is signed by Kenn Vredenberg, who identifies himself as an Austin Township “Supervisor/Assessor.”
A number of messages did come from people without any apparent ties to Nestlé or the local government. For instance, under a subject line that reads “Extra Credit,” Mia Finnestad writes, “Although I see how this can be a problem with violating water rights…Producing more water to our rapid growing american society is a necessity.”
Someone who identifies herself as only “Savannah” writes, “As long as we recycle the plastic bottles, I don't fore see [sic] any danger. Great Lakes water has been replenishing it self [sic] as long as there has been the Great Lakes. No one country can drink that much water.”
Another message, co-signed by Sarah Martin and Hannah Green, states, “If Nestle is willing to invest $36 million into expanding their company and into the Michigan economy, then it must be for a worthwhile cause.”
David V writes, “I, as a consumer should have the right to choose a healthy beverage option (like bottled water) over the high calorie drinks full of sugar. Our country is in an obesity crisis. We need healthy alternatives. There is a need for bottled water.”
Michael Peters, who identifies himself as a retired Air Force veteran, writes that he is “the principal creator and leader of the Herculean Effort to establish the Midwest and the Great Lakes as the ‘New Breadbasket’ for OUR Nation’s future food and drinking water … it will be left to us Midwesterners to fight the Great Lakes battle and maintain a cool head while everyone else in the USA is heating up in the coming drought…that could be YOUR KIDS fighting that same battle in their future…so… help ‘em out…win this deal for Nestle SA!”
One person identified only as “Mist Rider” sent two messages, one decrying “activist are wanna bes [sic]..with out [sic] knowledge of much of anything..Most all are sheep..being led….” Both messages include the same postscript: “!! FREEDOM !!”
The vast majority of the remaining public comments in support adhere to a strikingly similar format, each beginning with an identical sentence: “I would like to submit a public comment in regards to Nestle’s application at the White Pine Springs well in Osceola Township.”
TYT has posted the newly released public comments online.