- Peggy Casepresident of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.
- Terry Swierspokesperson for Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. She was the original president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation that took Nestlé to court.
- Glenna Manekeboard member and treasurer of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.
As Flint residents are forced to drink, cook with and even bathe in bottled water, while still paying some of the highest water bills in the country for their poisoned water, we turn to a little-known story about the bottled water industry in Michigan. In 2001 and 2002, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued permits to Nestlé, the largest water bottling company in the world, to pump up to 400 gallons of water per minute from aquifers that feed Lake Michigan. This sparked a decade-long legal battle between Nestlé and the residents of Mecosta County, Michigan, where Nestlé’s wells are located. One of the most surprising things about this story is that, in Mecosta County, Nestlé is not required to pay anything to extract the water, besides a small permitting fee to the state and the cost of leases to a private landowner. In fact, the company received $13 million in tax breaks from the state to locate the plant in Michigan. The spokesperson for Nestlé in Michigan is Deborah Muchmore. She’s the wife of Dennis Muchmore—Governor Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, who just retired and registered to be a lobbyist. We speak with Peggy Case, Terry Swier and Glenna Maneke of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.
Watch more from the Democracy Now! special report “Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!’s special, “Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City.” Well, as Flint residents are forced to drink, cook with and even bathe in bottled water, while still paying some of the highest water bills in the country for their poisoned water, we turn to a little-known story about the bottled water industry in Michigan.
In 2001 and '02, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued permits to Nestlé, now the largest water bottling company in the world, to pump up to 400 gallons of water per minute from aquifers that feed Lake Michigan. This sparked a decade-long legal battle between Nestlé and the residents in Mecosta County, where Nestlé's water wells are located. One of the most surprising things about this story is that, in Mecosta County, Nestlé is not really required to pay anything to extract the water, besides a small permitting fee to the state and the cost of a lease to a private landowner. In fact, the company received $13 million in tax breaks from the state of Michigan to locate the plant there.
The spokesperson for Nestlé in Michigan is Deborah Muchmore. She’s the wife of Dennis Muchmore—that’s Michigan Governor Rick Snyder’s chief of staff, who—he just retired and registered to be a lobbyist. Well, we reached out to Nestlé for comment on this story. We didn’t speak with Deborah Muchmore, but we did speak with Jane Lazgin of Nestlé Waters, who said, quote, “We are deeply invested in the Muskegon River watershed and its sustainability. Our water use is always permitted and compliant with the permitting authorities,” unquote.
But residents in Mecosta County have another story to tell. So let’s take a look at Nestlé and the battle over the Great Lakes, which are 20 percent of the world’s fresh water.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re in Flint, Michigan, where yesterday, on Saturday, we spent the day following residents who were checking on their neighbors—Do they have water? Is their filter working? Do they have children in the house? Have they been tested for lead?—just being good neighbors, also making sure that they had bottled water. One of the astounding things we learned is that residents are still paying for their lead-poisoned water.
When we first pulled into Flint, Michigan, the other night, we came behind, well, right here, the municipal building in Flint. There, the National Guard was giving out water. Today, a sign: “Flint water distribution center.” They gave us a case of Ice Mountain 100 percent natural spring water. It’s made by Nestlé.
Now, one of the things that a number of people were talking about is that Nestlé, which has a plant a couple hours north of here, a bottling plant, is sucking water out of Lake Michigan—for free. So, today we’re going to head north to Mecosta County, to the Nestlé bottling plant, to speak with a group of women who live in the area, who have been engaging in a legal battle against Nestlé for years. Let’s go.
AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! We’re here in Stanwood, Michigan. It’s about three hours north of Detroit. And it’s here that Nestlé has its Ice Mountain bottled water plant. We’re joined right now by Peggy Case. She is the current president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. Can you talk about this plant, Peggy?
PEGGY CASE: This is where the botted water is being trucked out from Nestlé. It’s taking the water from our aquifers, and it’s shipping it all over the world, so…
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about 200 gallons per minute is being sucked out of the aquifer that feeds Lake Michigan?
PEGGY CASE: Yes. So, the water from this plant is coming from several wells, one in Mecosta and two in Everett. And they are now pumping 218 gallons per minute. They wanted to do 400.
AMY GOODMAN: But you stopped them, from a decade-long lawsuit.
PEGGY CASE: That’s true.
AMY GOODMAN: How much do they pay for the 200 gallons of water per minute that they’re sucking out of the aquifer that feeds Lake Michigan?
PEGGY CASE: As far as I know, they’re paying nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go talk to Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.
AMY GOODMAN: Hello.
PEGGY CASE: Hello. Come in.
AMY GOODMAN: How are you?
PEGGY CASE: I’m good.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re?
PEGGY CASE: I’m Peggy Case.
AMY GOODMAN: Peggy, hi. Very nice to see you. Hi.
TERRY SWIER: Hi. I’m Terry Swier.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, hi, Terry.
TERRY SWIER: Nice to meet you.
GLENNA MANEKE: Hi. I’m Glenna.
AMY GOODMAN: Oh, hi, Glenna. How are you?
TERRY SWIER: My name is Terry Swier, and I live in Mecosta County, which is probably about three hours from Flint, two-and-a-half, three hours from Flint, Michigan. I was the original president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation that took Nestlé to court.
PEGGY CASE: I’m Peggy Case. I live near Traverse City, Michigan. I am about two hours away from Mecosta County, north of here. I became president of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation when Terry retired.
GLENNA MANEKE: Hi. I’m Glenna Maneke, and I’m on the board of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, currently the treasurer.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2000, when Nestlé came in to the area, to Mecosta County, explain what they were coming in to do.
TERRY SWIER: In 2000, we found that Nestlé was—had come to Mecosta County and was meeting with elected officials. And what Nestlé was asking for was a place that they would be able to take water, a bottling plant, and selling the water, which they basically—what Nestlé did was basically sold the water to us, and it was already our water.
AMY GOODMAN: Peggy Case, can you explain what was the water, the body of water they were drawing from?
PEGGY CASE: So the water that Nestlé is bottling here and elsewhere in our state is coming from the Great Lakes Basin. It is feeding here into Dead Stream and Cold Creek, then into the Little Muskegon River, that aquifer, and then eventually, ultimately, into Lake Michigan. So, it’s Great Lakes Basin water. It’s part of the commons. It belongs to all of us. And part of the reason that people in Mecosta were pretty upset about it is that the extraction of that water was being—it was being taken out of the watershed. It was being—the streams were being pumped down, to the point where the Dead Stream looked like a mudhole at one point, and bottled and shipped all over the world.
AMY GOODMAN: How is it possible that Nestlé, which is making an enormous profit on this water, doesn’t actually have to pay for the water it’s drawing?
PEGGY CASE: They’re drawing the water from a well on private land, for one thing. It would be no different if they came to my house, where I have a well, and asked to use my well to put water in a truck and cart it away. And if I said yes, they have the right to do that.
AMY GOODMAN: But this massive public resource, water—we’re not talking about feeding a family of four or five; we’re talking about 400 gallons per minute, around the day, around the month, around the year.
PEGGY CASE: Right. It’s criminal.
AMY GOODMAN: Why wouldn’t there be laws that say when you take this public resource, you have to pay for it, since people are paying for that water, including you, if you buy, for example, Ice Mountain?
PEGGY CASE: Well, I don’t know why it’s legal to do that. They get a permit from the state that allows them to do that. I personally don’t believe that we should be doing that with our water. We should not be privatizing the water. It amounts to privatizing the water.
AMY GOODMAN: Terry, take us through this decade-long lawsuit against Nestlé.
TERRY SWIER: We began in the circuit court. We had seen what Nestlé was proposing to do, and decided that we needed to take Nestlé to court. That was the only way that Nestlé would ever realize that, yes, we did want our water, we wanted to protect our water, and the water was ours, not theirs. This lasted for—like I said before, this lasted for eight years. And in that time, with lawyer fees and, you know, all the fees that come with going to court, we spent over $1 million.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenna Maneke, you’re the treasurer of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation. How did you raise this money? It costs like a million dollars to take on Nestlé?
GLENNA MANEKE: We scrambled for every penny we could get. We did 50/50 raffles among us, or anybody else we could get into it. We did yard sales. We wrote grants. We had bake sales.
PEGGY CASE: Pasties.
GLENNA MANEKE: Help me out here.
PEGGY CASE: Pasties.
GLENNA MANEKE: Pasties were part of the bake sale.
AMY GOODMAN: What are pasties?
GLENNA MANEKE: Pasties are a meat-and-vegetable concoction that’s kind of localized to Michigan.
AMY GOODMAN: And you were able to raise how much through all of this?
GLENNA MANEKE: We are out of debt now.
PEGGY CASE: We raised a million dollars with no corporate money, no government money. At one point, Nestlé even offered us some kind of a grant, and Terry said, “Are you kidding? No way!”
AMY GOODMAN: Terry Swier, can you talk about Nestlé actually personally going after you?
TERRY SWIER: My son and I both had had some problems. There was a SLAPP suit against my son.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about a SLAPP suit, strategic lawsuit against public participation? That’s SLAPP?
TERRY SWIER: That is where—to put it very, very simply, it is where the company, Nestlé, they wrote the letter to Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation’s lawyer saying that my son, Chris, was not speaking nicely about Nestlé—you know, surprise, surprise—and that they were going to do a SLAPP suit.
AMY GOODMAN: Did they send private investigators to your home?
TERRY SWIER: We had these private investigators show up. And then we also had the FBI coming to our homes.
AMY GOODMAN: Glenna Maneke, did you have any family members, or you, yourself, were you approached by the FBI?
GLENNA MANEKE: Well, this is hearsay from my family members, but there had been a small—what? Explosion or bomb? Or what was it?
TERRY SWIER: Oh, yeah.
GLENNA MANEKE: Set off at the wellhead. And they had decided that it was my uncle who had done it. And so the FBI came to his house to arrest him. And they found him in his wheelchair with neither one of his prostheses on. It was the highlight of his life.
AMY GOODMAN: So when we came in to Flint a few night ago, we went behind the municipal building, and the National Guard was distributing water to people who drove up, and they gave us a case of Ice Mountain water. Ice Mountain is made by Nestlé, actually right down the road from here in Mecosta County. So, you have a situation where the people of Flint, their water supply is poisoned, and they are now being donated, or they have to buy, bottled water. A lot of that is Nestlé water. Nestlé is a corporation—overall, I think it posted $14 billion in profit in 2014. Can you talk about this connection?
PEGGY CASE: I want to know why we don’t have FEMA coming, bringing in the tanker trucks that they, I’m sure, have available. Why aren’t they taking the groundwater that Nestlé is taking, and providing it to the people in larger containers?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s interesting, because we did see big FEMA pallets of water, as well.
PEGGY CASE: The National Guard is distributing small bottles of water. They are certainly capable of finding some trucks to bring in groundwater from endless aquifers here that Nestlé is getting for free. And the people of Flint should get it for free, too.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s quite amazing. You have people paying—having to pay for their poisoned water in Flint.
PEGGY CASE: A hundred and forty dollars a month, roughly.
AMY GOODMAN: Some of the highest rates in Michigan—
PEGGY CASE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —and in the country.
PEGGY CASE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you have, in—but now, because, under enormous pressure, the state government says they’re not going to engage in cutoffs of water, but here you have Detroit, which actually has clean water—so the people in Flint, they will continue to get their poisoned water, but the people in Detroit, who have clean water, they’re having their water cut off.
PEGGY CASE: Right. It’s—I call it criminal behavior. It’s also—in my mind, it’s environmental racism.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “environmental racism”?
PEGGY CASE: These are cities that are predominantly African-American cities. These are the ones that have been taken over by emergency managers.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s hard not to notice that the leadership of these organizations, whether in Detroit or dealing with the poisoned water in Flint, to here, that you are women. What is it about you gals?
PEGGY CASE: I have two sons, and I have two grandchildren. And I—that’s who I work for. I mean, I do. I work for my children and my grandchildren. I’m very—we’re also very concerned about climate change. We’re concerned about what kind of planet we’re leaving for our children. I think women tend to maybe be a little closer to that feeling or that kind of passion. For me, it’s a moral imperative. I have to leave something better than what I found, and we’re having, as a species, a hard time doing that these days. So, I have—you know, I’ve been an activist all my life, pretty much.
AMY GOODMAN: Terry, as Peggy said she was an activist all her life, you were shaking your head. You weren’t?
TERRY SWIER: I have never been involved in anything like what we’re doing right now, and never thought I could do it, never thought I would have to do it. But I agree with Peggy. You can see the lake that I live on. And one day, I just stood there, and I looked. I have five grandchildren, two sons, two daughter-in-laws. And it’s like I cannot let this happen. I’m a third generation who lives here. And this means so much to me, that I could not just walk away from it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Terry Swier, Peggy Case and Glenna Maneke of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation at Terry’s home in Mecosta County, Michigan. That does it for our special, “Thirsty for Democracy: The Poisoning of an American City.” If you want to get a copy, go to democracynow.org. And special thanks to Democracy Now!’s Laura Gottesdiener, Sam Alcoff and Denis Moynihan, and to Kate Levy and to Notown, the movie.
Happy Birthday to Neil Shibata. Speaking of birthdays, February 19th, Friday, marks the 20th anniversary of Democracy Now!'s first broadcast. To help us celebrate, take a photo or a video. Tell us who you are, where you tune in, and why you need Democracy Now!, and post it online with the hashtag #HappyBirthdayDN. We'll feature, maybe, your message on the show.