Plan for Perrier bottling plant creates big political splash

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Capital News Service
LANSING –The Perrier Group is creating a bigger “splash” than expected among residents in central Michigan.
The maker of the well-known water bottler is in hot water with residents and regional environmental groups over its proposal to pump water from the Great Lakes Basin to supply operations at its soon-to-be-completed bottling plant near Big Rapids.
The proposal calls for Perrier to divert as much as 500 gallons per minute of spring water that feeds the head-waters of the Little Muskegon River in Mecosta County. The river flows to the Muskegon River and then to Lake Michigan.
Groups such as the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation in Mecosta and the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah are outraged over the state’s approval of a permit allowing the bottling giant to tap the river.
“The state is now setting a precedent in international trade agreement that if you can pump the water out, you can sell it and profit from it, with no measurable benefit back to the people of the state,” said Arlin Wasserman, policy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute.
Wasserman’s group wants the state to take a more active role in protecting state waters when granting permits and to reconsider its approval of the Perrier proposal.
The MCWC wants a more thorough investigation of the proposal and its impact on the surrounding communities and environment.
The organization has also encouraged a boycott, started by citizens of Wisconsin and Michigan, of all Perrier products and its parent company, Nestle USA.
But as far as the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is concerned, the Perrier permit is a done deal.
“Technically, this was an easy decision for us, but it became controversial because many people simply don’t want the water used,” said DEQ Director Russell Harding.
Harding said the DEQ took a stand in favor of Perrier because the company’s proposal satisfied the necessary requirements.
“The permit was granted because the company provided our agency with the information needed to make a sound evaluation,” Harding said.
But he acknowledged the agency does lack authority under existing law to enforce getting the information it needs to make the most thorough decision.
Legislation introduced by Rep. Jim Howell, R-Saginaw, answers that need, Harding said. The measure would require investigation of permit proposals asking for removing more than 70 gallons per minute.
“We have to address this public fear and concern,” Howell said.
According to the MLUI, the problem lies with existing laws that are largely concerned with water quality and less with how large users might impact the state’s water supply.
“Michigan extended tax incentives to the Perrier Group amounting to more than $9.5 million that included a waiver of all school and property tax payments for 12 years,” said Wasserman, who also fears state endorsement of the proposal will undermine the power of the Annex 2001 Agreement. The agreement essentially protects the waters of the Great Lakes Basin.
Attorney General Jennifer Granholm issued a call to action last year, asking lawmakers and the environmental community to work with her in crafting a comprehensive policy to protect Michigan’s fresh water and the Great Lakes.
“As a Great Lakes state, Michigan shares responsibility for more than one-fifth of the world’s fresh water,” Granholm said. “Yet we are one of only two states in the region without a framework for using this precious resource.
“The MCWC has since taken the matter to court to determine who owns the water. The case is expected to be heard in Mecosta County Circuit court later this year.
“The attorney general’s word is as good as law until the courts say otherwise,” Wasserman said.
Spokesmen from the Perrier Group were unavailable for comment.
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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