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November 26, 2003

MECOSTA COUNTY: Judge orders a halt to water bottling operation

Ruling says it harms area environment

      BIG RAPIDS (AP) - A judge has ordered the company that produces Ice Mountain bottled water to halt all groundwater withdrawals from its Mecosta County wells.
      In a decision released Tuesday, Mecosta County Circuit Judge Lawrence C. Root said the withdrawals have caused a "material diminishment" of water flows and levels in neighboring lakes, streams and wetlands.
Associated Press
A stream of bottles full of "test product" move down a conveyor belt on the production floor of the Ice Mountain Spring Water Co. plant near Stanwood.
      "It's everything that we asked for and it's basically a total vindication of the plaintiff's claims," said Scott Howard, an attorney for Olson & Bzdok, a Traverse City-based law firm representing Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation.
      Howard said the case has consumed his office for about three years.
      "Almost every attorney in the office has worked on it in one way or another," Howard said. "It's basically consumed (attorney) Jim Olson's life for the past year."
      The case may not be over, however, Howard said.
      "Obviously, they have the ability to appeal, no one knows whether or not they're going to, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did."
      In the suit that Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation filed in June 2001, the group asked for a halt to production at the Ice Mountain Spring Water Co. bottling facility in Mecosta Township.
      The lawsuit said the plant's high-volume pumping would lower lake and stream levels near the wells from which Ice Mountain draws its water. The company operates four wells in Mecosta County's Morton Township and pumps the water about 13 miles southwest to the plant.
      The water comes from an aquifer that is part of the west branch of the Little Muskegon River watershed.
      The suit claimed that the withdrawals harm or likely will harm the environment, violate state environmental protections and infringe upon the group members' riparian rights - a reference to enjoying the aesthetic and recreational qualities of a body of water.
      Root agreed.
      "In cases where there is a groundwater use that is from a water source underground that is shown to have a hydrological connection to a surface water body to which riparian rights attach, the groundwater use is of inferior legal standing than the riparian rights," he wrote.
      The ruling thrilled Scott Howard, a Traverse City lawyer for the citizens group.
      "We and our clients are elated and we think the judge's decision is right on and it really speaks for itself," Howard said. "It's a fantastic decision."
      Ice Mountain spokeswoman Deborah Muchmore called the ruling "quite extreme" and "very unwarranted."
      She also said Ice Mountain will pursue an appeal.
      The judge stressed that he was not ordering the facility closed.
      "The prediction (threat?) that Nestle employees will lose their jobs and the community lose a valuable corporate citizen and taxpayer is entirely in the control of the decision makers at Nestle," Root wrote. "They can develop alternative water sources that do not present the kind of risks that this one does and, after an initial capital outlay, continue bottling and selling water."
      Plant representatives say never before has a company in Michigan done so much testing and monitoring of its groundwater withdrawals, even though the state has no requirements for reporting ongoing withdrawals.
      The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's water division granted a permit allowing the water-bottling plant in southwestern Mecosta County to withdraw up to 400 gallons per minute, or 576,000 gallons per day.
      Since production started, the plant's average pumping rate has been around 200 to 250 gallons per minute, officials said earlier.
      But Root said that is still too much.
      "I am unable to find that a specific pumping rate lower than 400 gallons per minute, or any other rate to date, will reduce the effects and impact to a level that is not harmful," he wrote.
      Root heard weeks of testimony in the case last spring and summer. The lawsuit was filed against Ice Mountain and its Greenwich, Conn.-based parent company, Nestle Waters North America Inc., formerly Perrier Group of America Inc.
      NWNA is the nation's largest producer of bottled water, Muchmore said. Ice Mountain is one of its 18 regional bottlers and the brand is distributed throughout the Great Lakes states.
      Terry Swier, a retired University of Michigan-Flint reference librarian who moved to Mecosta County's Martiny Township in 1999, helped establish Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation in December 2000. She and her husband, Gary, and some neighbors formed the group because they were worried that the water-bottling project was moving too quickly.
      Some companies, like Ice Mountain, periodically report their data to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality on a voluntary basis.
      The debate over the water withdrawals nearly turned violent in September. Ice Mountain workers making a routine check of a Martiny Township pumping station discovered a broken-out glass-block window and found unexploded, homemade firebombs. The radical environmental group Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility. The FBI is investigating.
      Since opening last year, the water-bottling plant has tripled the number of people working there to 155 and expanded its size by 75 percent, with more employment growth expected next year.
      Muchmore said there are no plans to lay off any of the workers as the company charts its course in the coming months.
      On the Net:
      Nestle Waters North America Inc.,
      Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation,
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