Nestle draws fire for plans to pump more water from North Florida springs

By | 12.02.10 | 2:00 pm

The Wacissa River (Pic via Wikipedia)

Citizens in North Florida are gearing up for what many foresee as a drawn-out battle with Nestle Waters North America, the country’s largest water bottler, which recently completed test wells in Jefferson County as part of its process to determine whether to apply for a permit to begin withdrawing spring water from sites along the Wacissa River.

While the Swiss-based corporation insists it is only in the preliminary stages of the process and has yet to submit a formal proposal to the scientific body charged with overseeing the region, the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD), citizens and local officials are already voicing concern with placing increased strain on Florida’s spring system without creating any new jobs and providing little or no benefit to the state or surrounding community.

If approved, the Nestle load station will serve as a supplemental water source, drawing approximately 400,000 gallons per day that will be transported 40 miles via tanker trucks to Nestle’s Madison Blue Springs bottling facility. Local critics insist their small, rural roads cannot support the additional traffic or degradation that 70 trucks a day would bring, while springs experts note that flow rates for the Wacissa River need to be established before sustainable withdrawal amounts can be determined — something that isn’t scheduled to take place until 2016.

State Rep. Leonard Bembry, a Democrat whose district includes both Madison and Jefferson counties, says that he’d be surprised if the district approves a permit for the proposed load station along the Wacissa, noting that he thinks the project can’t be justified.

“The water management district has been there for 25 years, and over that time they’ve been amassing information in order to make good decisions,” he says. “Given the information that I have, I think a large increase in the volume of water we pump down is not positive for our area. I believe that when they look at those water permits, they’ll come to the same conclusion. I don’t see how they could come to any other conclusion.”

“The whole purpose is to protect people in this state; that’s why they’re there,” Bembry adds. “I pay fees on my property taxes every year for their existence, and you’d like to think that, charged with that responsibility, they’d make good water decisions. That’s what I would like to think.”

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Critics of Nestle, the world’s largest producer of pre-packaged food items, are not limited to Florida or even the United States. As one of only a small number of corporations with a presence in every country on the planet, it has been difficult for Nestle to avoid controversy while building an ever-expanding business empire that has become increasingly concerned with securing the rights to turn public water into private profit, a practice that some estimate requires 2,000 times the energy necessary to provide tap water.

The ubiquitous brand has been engaged in fierce legal battles over water in states such as Colorado, Wisconsin, California, Maine and Michigan, while globally Nestle has been accused of unfair labor practices, human rights violations, deforestation and even spying on its critics.

Concerned citizens are citing Nestle’s past business practices along with facts underlining the lack of any benefit to the surrounding community, and have launched a website and begun filing petitions and inundating their elected officials with emails and phone calls.

They are also holding events along the Wacissa River to raise awareness of the new corporate citizen coming to town. Many point to the Nestle facility at nearby Blue Springs in Madison County as an example of how, despite public pushback and scientific recommendations, Nestle was able to secure the rights to pump upwards of 1.47 million gallons of spring water per day for a meager $230 permitting fee.

In 2003, Nestle broke ground on the bottling facility at Blue Springs, one of some 33 first-magnitude springs in the state, following years of protracted efforts by various land- and permit-holders to develop the area using a consumptive use permit originally obtained by the landowner in 1998.

That permit, which subsequently changed hands several times before Nestle became involved in late 2002, is approved through 2018 and allows for an average daily withdrawal of 1.47 million gallons.

On Nov. 15, 2002, the SRWMD issued a notice to the permit holder, Bill Blanchard, that staff recommended reducing the average daily withdrawal to 400,000 gallons per day based on drought conditions afflicting the region. One week later, a further notice outlined that procedures had been initiated to revoke the permit after more than two years of non-use, in accordance with Florida statutes.

Lawyers from Nestle quickly scrambled to modify aspects of the permits they now owned along with the land itself, convincing the governor-appointed SRWMD board to defer action on revoking their permit. The SRWMD eventually met with the company in early 2003 to establish new terms. Nestle agreed to invest $100 million in the plant over the next seven years and to create hundreds of new jobs, with the stipulation that the withdrawal amounts in the original permit remain the same, despite recommendations by SRWMD staff.

Nestle claimed that its new state-of-the-art facility would be a boon to the local community, providing upwards of 300 jobs in addition to the millions of dollars that would be provided for infrastructure, and environmental studies and monitoring.

Economic development entities such as Enterprise Florida and the North Central Florida Economic Development Partnership made personal appeals to the board, reiterating Nestle talking points about the “vital” nature of the project for Madison County and the State of Florida – despite the fact that bottled water is exempt from sales tax in Florida – as well as throwing around the 300-plus jobs figure as a key component in considering the new plant’s viability.

The board eventually green-lit the new operation, and while such benefits were undoubtedly seen as a win-win scenario for both corporation and community, it has been hard to keep the lofty promises.

Much of the infrastructure investment came in the form of upgrading the roads used by Nestle’s trucks, the studies and monitoring conducted are both required by law and necessary for operations, and there are currently 145 employees at the plant — less than half the expected number of employees touted by the company at the outset.

Rep. Bembry took some of the concerns raised by his constituents to the water management district, seeking clarification on several key issues that could potentially derail Nestle’s expansion into Jefferson County.

Bembry says Steve Minnis, director of governmental affairs for the SRWMD, assured him that consumptive use permits are site-specific and cannot be transferred or extended to other locations – a claim that has been made by opponents of the Jefferson project.

In addition, Minnis explained to Rep. Bembry that it’s unlikely the SRWMD would approve a permit if there is no on-site bottling facility, noting that an applicant at Lilly Springs in nearby Gilchrist County was recently denied based on this factor.

However, in an interview with The Florida Independent, Minnis was less clear about SRWMD policies, admitting that decisions are made on a case-by-case basis on the issues noted above, while adding that he did not want to “harm the agency” by incorrectly stating procedure. When pressed for clarification, he acknowledged that permits have been shared before, but “typically they were in the same basin.”

Minnis went on to explain that the SRWMD governing board, comprised of volunteer laypeople who ultimately approve or deny a permit, focuses on the tangible incentives a project will offer a given area.

“The board’s practice has been that there needs to be an economic benefit to the community, and by having a facility and jobs there, there is an economic benefit. With transporting [water to another facility], the economic benefit hasn’t been there for the board from a public interest standpoint.”

He also noted that the district has received numerous phone calls and emails on the issue, with the vast majority of those expressing opposition.

John Dinges, director of research management at the SRWMD, says that there are a large number of criteria to be evaluated when considering a permit, emphasizing that there are no firm stipulations about trucking water or sharing permits.

“We don’t have anything in the rules that says, ‘Thou shalt not put water in a tanker truck,’” Dinges says. “The way the rules read is that they have to demonstrate the need for the water, and the place that it’s going to be bottled. We define ‘bottling’ as pumping water to bottle it as an FDA-regulated food product. If they don’t tell us where they are going to actually put the water to use, for all the reasons in the rules, then we can’t issue a permit. And that was one of the issues with Lilly Springs – we just didn’t know there they were going to bottle it.”

Nestle hydrologist and Natural Resource Manager Kent Koptiuch wrote in a recent editorial for the Tallahassee Democrat that his company is a steward of the environment, stressing that it will take at least another year of research to determine the viability of the proposed load station and establish sustainable withdrawal rates that will leave the surrounding environment unaffected.

“Even if another year’s worth of testing suggests it is worth pursuing, we still must work through a lengthy and thorough permitting process,” Koptiuch wrote. “Geologists, engineers and scientists from the Suwannee River Water Management District (SRWMD) will go through our application with a fine-toothed comb. Only if they are satisfied that our planned usage will cause no harm will we be allowed to proceed. That is the public’s guarantee of sustainability.”

But not everyone is convinced by the rhetoric. Save the Wacissa — a community group that formed after news broke that the test wells were being constructed — argues that Nestle has viciously fought and appealed water management district recommendations in the past, saying such action effectively delegitimizes its claims of being at the mercy of environmental scientists.

They will be bringing their concerns to the Jefferson County commission meeting scheduled for Dec. 16 in Monticello, along with two other citizens groups, PoWRS (Protecting our Wacissa River and Springs) and Friends of the Wacissa.

Rep. Bembry, who will also be present at the meeting, insists both the environment and the people have nothing to gain from the venture.

“This is not about jobs for the Wacissa area, it’s about natural resources,” he said. “To me, [Nestle is] just adding more opportunity to their formula, and I’m just not sure that the people are well served in that situation. There’s not anything in it for the citizens of the Wacissa area. I can’t see why anyone would support it.”

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