I-Team Report: Water Worries

Updated: May. 11, 2017 at 2:33 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

FLINT, Mich. (WNEM) - In the State of Michigan a water bottle can represent several different things.

In Flint, it’s an undesired way of life.

Since 2015, residents have depended on bottled water for cooking and bathing since lead began contaminating the city’s water supply in 2014.

But across the state, in the small town of Stanwood, water bottles equal business.

Just five miles outside of Big Rapids sits the water bottling factory for Nestle’s Ice Mountain water. Water that is pumped from a well 40 miles north of the plant.

Millions of gallons of water are pumped out every year, contributing to Nestle’s $7 billion bottom line.

For many Flint residents who continue to pay for water they can’t drink, that simply doesn’t add up.

“Why do we have to live off of bottled water and filters? Why do we have to pay for water that we cannot drink? Why do we have to pay for water that they don’t have to pay for? If this is the water-wonderland, then let it be free for everybody,” said Berndale Jefferson, Flint resident.

Jefferson is no stranger to a life with bottled water.

She’s a face you often see, not on the stage, but in the audience of the Flint community meetings and town halls.

In April she hopped on a bus and made the two-and-a-half-hour ride to Big Rapids for a public hearing on Nestle’s request to draw 60 percent more water from its wells.

“If we are going around to the wells that give out water, whose water did they give out,” Jefferson asked.

Jefferson, like many of the people who packed into a hearing hosted by the Department of Environmental Quality, feels Flint is getting a raw deal.

While Nestle earns billions in annual profit from its global water sales, the company pays next-to-nothing for the state’s water. Only a $200 annual operating permit.

While Nestle pumps one million gallons of water per day, it is far from the largest consumer of Michigan’s water.

According to the DEQ, data obtained by the I-Team shows Nestle is actually the 85th largest consumer of water in the state. Far behind a list of pharmaceutical companies, cement makers, and power plants.

Comparatively, Nestle’s water use is dwarfed by companies like U.S. Steel, which goes through 146 million gallons of water every day.

But Nestle announced it wants to take even more water. The company has taken more than then its water-pumping counterparts.

Nelson Switzer is the Vice President of Nestle Waters, North America.

He took us on an exclusive tour of Nestle’s Standwood plant and said he understands why so many people have a lot to say when it comes to the company and Michigan’s water.

“Water is a very personal issue for a lot of people and it emotes a lot of passion. You couple on top of that some of the challenges we are seeing in Michigan and the city of Flint, and it really raises the level of passion that’s going on,” Switzer said.

For some, Nestle is the enemy. A big company making big bucks without a thought for the people who are suffering every day.

Switzer said for him, the suffering in Flint is far from an afterthought.

“What I see is a very unfortunate and unconscionable activity that has gone on in the city of Flint. What has happened there bothers me. I have lost sleep over it,” he said.

Despite what critics call water robbery, Nestle has been a part of Flint’s recovery since the start of the water crisis.

The company has donated 35,000 water bottles to Flint residents every month.

“We are very interested and very concerned,” Switzer said.

Other critics said Nestle is drying up the state’s water supply, leaving nothing for the people who live here.

Switzer said the company’s $275 million investment in the state says otherwise.

“If we invest $275 million in the state, it makes no business sense to exhaust the resource. We want the resource to be here forever,” he said.

Switzer said Nestle may be a business, but make no mistake, it is fighting for Flint.

A fight that residents like Jefferson are at the front of.

“There’s no place too far to go that if it would make a difference of me showing up, then I will show up,” Jefferson said.