MDEQ officials comment on why controversial Nestle water permit was approved

Michigan residents furious about state's deal with Nestle

EVART, Mich. – For the first time, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is commenting on why the controversial Nestle water permit was approved.

Nestle is pumping out 400 gallons of water from the Great Lakes each minute, and the state is only charging $200 per year.

Evart, Michigan, is the town at the center of the controversy.

"There's going to be a conspiracy theory about why the permit was approved," said Eric J. Oswald, division director of the MDEQ.

Most Michigan residents were opposed to the Nestle water deal, as more than 80,000 told the MDEQ not to approve the permit and only 70 supported the deal.

"I wouldn't say (public comment) doesn't matter," Oswald said. "It obviously matters to us."

"But it doesn't matter in the final decision-making process," Local 4's Hank Winchester said.

"Not entirely, no," Oswald said.

But MDEQ officials said they have to follow the law, and in this case, they said Nestle provided the documentation necessary to get approval.

"The water law in the state of Michigan -- it is what it is," Oswald said. "We deal with the laws as they're written."

"If you look at it, it was done based on science," Snyder said. "It's not about business versus being anti-business. It was sound science to say those withdrawals won't have adverse impacts, and there's follow-up testing that has to take place to make sure they stay in compliance. If they don't, things would change."

"How can it not be about business when they're only paying $200 a year for a permit and making hundreds of millions of dollars off our natural resource?" Hank asked.

"That's an issue for the legislature to decide about fee structures," Snyder said. "But as a practical matter, they followed the rules as they exist, they followed sound science, so the permit was issued."

The plant in Stanwood, Michigan, employs about 300 people, but most of the water is taken from wells in Evart, which is an hour away, where the majority of people live below the poverty line.

Nestle pays a portion of the water bill for everyone in town and the company has spruced up athletic fields and fair grounds. But people said they want jobs in the town.

Evart city manager Zackary Szakacs said only five or six of 1,903 people in the city work for Nestle.

"I ask them every day," Szakacs said. "They just say there's a possibility."

Environmental groups are hoping to stop Nestle, arguing the Swiss-based company didn't follow the rules in the statute and the permit never should have been approved. But legal battles can be long, so Nestle will continue pumping water.

Nestle has refused Local 4's request for an on-camera interview, and while the MDEQ made someone available, we're told Director Heidi Grether is unavailable to comment.

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