About 70 miles north of Grand Rapids, water conservation groups continue to put pressure on a pair of developments that would withdraw hundreds of gallons of groundwater per minute.
Nestlé Waters North America and Michigan Potash LLC are planning projects near Evart and Hersey, respectively, that — while separate in nature — would both draw amounts of water that have generated backlash from advocates.
The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a permit to Nestlé on April 2 allowing the company to increase the withdrawal from its White Pine Springs well from 250 gallons per minute (gpm) to 400 gpm. Nestlé is now required to establish a monitoring program before increasing its take for what will then be bottled and sold.
Meanwhile, Michigan Potash seeks to withdraw 1,200 gpm — or about 2 million gallons per day — for a planned mine near Hersey that would use groundwater from hundreds of feet beneath the surface in the extraction process for potash. Company officials say the water is then recycled and reused for more mining.
The Osceola County projects, about 8 miles apart, serve different purposes: bottling spring water for commercial resale, and extracting a fertilizer ingredient before returning the water underground. Yet both are facing strong opposition from conservation groups, and the projects come amid heated water-use issues statewide that include the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac and the Flint water crisis.
“It’s very significant,” Dave Dempsey, senior adviser with For Love of Water (FLOW), said of the two projects.
FLOW argues that the DEQ improperly granted Nestlé’s permit based on a flawed interpretation of state law. On potash, he pointed to a recent headline in the Detroit Free Press calling the resource’s availability a “gold mine” for the area.
“What we need to do when we become aware of these resources is come up with a sensible plan for development and not treat it as a windfall or treasure,” he said. “We can extract resources in ways that are sustainable, but I don’t think anyone has approached the potash issue that way.”
However, the DEQ says its decision on Nestlé’s request was within its authority under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act.
Ted Pagano, president of Michigan Potash LLC, said the mine’s water usage would be relatively small compared to the amount of water in the watershed and to other industries’ water uses.
“Folks don’t have a good feel for what large water consumption is,” Pagano said. “I can generate enough potash for most of Michigan, northern Indiana, northern Ohio and Wisconsin to use for the same amount of water one 400-acre farm would use.”
Despite widespread public opposition, the DEQ approved Nestlé’s permit on April 2 as the company expands a bottling plant in Stanwood.
DEQ Director Heidi Grether acknowledged the number of public comments against the project — 80,945 compared to 75 in support — but said the department’s extensive review under the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act permitted the increased withdrawal.
Nestlé said it will “carefully review the specifics” of the requirements going forward and plans to file monitoring plans “as required.” Litigation is also ongoing in Osceola Township, which denied Nestlé’s attempt to build a new pump house that’s needed to move water to the Stanwood bottling plant.
While public comments related to policy didn’t factor into the DEQ’s decision, Dempsey said the agency erred in granting the permit. The decision brought widespread condemnation from residents and lawmakers across the state.
“If the agency decided to interpret the law conservatively, they would have had to deny the permit,” Dempsey said, adding that Nestlé should have been required to file a monitoring plan before permit approval. “It’s a colossal mistake. The statute’s really clear: They need to demonstrate there are not adverse impacts before the permit is granted. The rule of law is a slippery slope with this DEQ.”
More broadly, groups like FLOW remain opposed to the privatization of public water, noting that Nestlé’s annual reporting fee for the operation is $200.
“We’re outraged the state has continued to treat the capture and sale of water as another water use. It’s clearly not,” Dempsey said.
He added that, “to our dismay,” some environmental groups conceded the ability for companies to bottle water and sell it out of state in order to support the Great Lakes Compact, which governs water withdrawals from the watershed.
FLOW remains concerned about the precedent of the DEQ’s decision.
“One large bottling operation might not have a large impact,” Dempsey said. “But if we’re opening the door for many, it will have an impact.”
Jason Geer, director of energy and environmental policy for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, says Michigan is a “reasonable use” state, meaning one entity’s water use can’t unduly interfere with someone else’s rights to use the water. He believes the DEQ “did a good job” in reviewing and approving Nestlé’s permit.
Companies “could always come here and locate here,” he said of potential growth. “I don’t know if it opens new doors that hadn’t already been opened. The reality is this process isn’t easy.”
David Hyndman, a hydrogeology professor at Michigan State University, says federal requirements for bottled water labeling — and those that require it to come from springs — could lead to more projects near headwater stream systems “where the effects of pumping could be substantial.”
“If you move these things out of headwater areas, it would be a more ecologically beneficial situation,” he said, suggesting an alternative site closer to the Muskegon River.
Michigan holds a vast, untapped reserve of potash, which is a common agricultural fertilizer. Pagano says Michigan could be a leading player in the U.S. — which imports a large majority of its potash — if companies like his are allowed access. The economics remain uncertain, though, after the price of potash plunged several years ago and price disputes among other countries flooded the market with cheap product.
The company also is awaiting underground injection control permits from the DEQ. It’s unclear when the project would be able to move forward.
As part of the extraction process, brine water is injected nearly 8,000 feet below the surface to dissolve potash. The solution is brought to the surface and boiled, creating a steam distillate that is recondensed and sent below ground to extract more potassium chloride (potash) and salt.
“It’s a closed loop, perpetually recycling system,” Pagano said.
Michigan Potash has negotiated mineral leases with 450 property owners across 23 square miles that include water-use provisions. Pagano says lease-holders include board members from Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, an advocacy group opposed to the project. Pagano says he’s frustrated by this fact, describing it as a conflict for MCWC board members to oppose the project yet sign lease agreements with him.
“Quite frankly, my patience has run short,” he said.
MCWC President Peggy Case responded: “First of all, if there are individual people with leases, that doesn’t necessarily have to do with our organization. We (MCWC) don’t have leases with anybody. There may be a few people who were sort of duped into signing leases some time ago and regret it now, but it’s not an organizational matter for us. We don’t stand to profit by anything that’s happening there.”
Case also disputes Pagano’s claims that the mine’s water withdrawals wouldn’t have an impact on neighbors.
“What’s going to happen to wetlands and people’s wells with pumping at that rate?” she asked.
She also doesn’t think the project has “much validity,” questioning whether it’s a sustainable business model in a market where people can get “cheap potash elsewhere.”
“Why destroy beautiful, pristine wetlands for someone’s crazy business venture?” she said.
Pagano says using about 2 million gallons per day to produce a large quantity of potash for crop fertilizer is a “heck of a trade.” And unlike with Nestlé, the potash project would pay royalties to property owners, he said.
The two projects come amid increased scrutiny to multiple water-related issues in Michigan: the Line 5 pipeline, the Flint water crisis, Detroit water shutoffs, the dioxane plume in Ann Arbor, PFAS chemicals in residential wells in Plainfield and Algoma townships and pollution in Lake Erie from agricultural run-off.
Dempsey believes the topic — which is “usually addressed in platitudes” by lawmakers — will play a role in this fall’s statewide elections.
“I have been pleased and impressed by the visceral reaction this decision touched off,” he said of the Nestlé permit. “An extra issue added to the debate is the Flint disaster. They’re different situations, but both have something to say about the state government’s treatment of water. Inequity has captured people’s imaginations and makes them angry.”
Geer of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce said there’s a “PR aspect that continues to be a challenge for any company using groundwater.”
Communities across the country appear to be paying more attention particularly to drinking water, he said.
“Michigan has always been really sensitive to water. I don’t think that’s new,” Geer said. “There’s a really diverse group of people in Michigan that care about the resources around us.”