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August 01, 2002

RUMBLES ON ICE MOUNTAIN

By Chase Edwards
Sun staff writer

On a warm July day in Northern Michigan’s rural Mecosta County an Amish carriage drives by the Ice Mountain spring water plant. The simple black carriage juxtaposed against the $100 million bottling facility, a Nestle subsidiary that pumps 400 gallons of spring water per minute and bottles it for sale throughout the Midwest, manages to make the scene pastoral. Peaceful at least.

If it’s a bit surreal, so is the rest of the scene. On July 22 a group of protesters locked together block the plant’s entrance while others carry signs reading “Stop Ice Mountain.” Meanwhile, a handful of Mecosta County Police assigned to keep order chat politely with the protesters. For activist Holly Wren Spaulding of Cedar, it’s an opportunity to educate the officers as well as everyone else. “Education is an important tactic. A lot of people don’t understand the issue, but once they do they see how grave it is,” she says.

There’s a hint of frustration in Holly’s voice as she talks, and it’s with good reason. The issue is complex. At the local level, citizens from around the state and country who tried to keep the plant out through referendums, worry that Ice Mountain has the capability of draining the aquifer, drying up area wells. Unlike other businesses that use water but recycle it back into the groundwater system, Ice Mountain water is gone for good. But the issue gets bigger and more crucial. Ice Mountain takes its water from a spring that feeds into the Great Lakes basin. And that, the protesters fear, is setting a dangerous international precedent for the sale of Great Lake’s water. “The thought of corporations taking over our water is horrible,” says Tiffany Teneyck, from the nearby town of Mount Pleasant.

Teneyck and her fellow protesters aren’t the only ones who see a fight brewing over Great Lakes water. Given the insatiable market for bottled water in a water-starved world, what will stop other large corporations from removing water from the Great Lakes Basin? There’s little doubt that the 20 percent of the world’s freshwater stored in the Great Lakes will look more and more appealing to a world in which, the World Bank estimates, 2 billion people already live in areas where water is scarce.

Could the six quadrillion gallons of water in the Great Lakes really run dry?

Environmentalists simply point to the Aral Sea in Russia. It was once filled with fresh water the size of Lake Superior, but courtesy of the Soviet government’s abusive environmental practices, it is now dry.

Envisioning an arid Lake Michigan is a bit of a stretch, however, for Brendan O’Rourke, the manager of the Ice Mountain facility in Mecosta County. “I still haven’t gotten the whole reason behind the protest,” he says. Indeed, the company insists that what they’re doing is absolutely safe. According to the company’s web site, Ice Mountain hires Natural Resource Managers who rely on sound science to insure that its operation won’t affect the water supply.

The company also promised the creation of some 95 jobs in economically depressed Mecosta County. Tiffany Teneyck, for one, understands how important those jobs are. “My dad told me he wanted to get a job at the new plant. For my family, and other working class families, the opening of the plant also meant bringing in new jobs, which was a plus. I look at the people who need jobs and I can understand their support. But I still want the plant to shut down regardless,” she says.

To the Engler administration, the company’s policy of sound science coupled with the potential new jobs was reason enough to grant Ice Mountain $9.5 million in tax abatements. Reasonable as it may have seemed, however, that move was an about-face for Michigan’s Governor on the subject of Great Lakes water diversion.

Beginning in the late 1990s Engler stepped out strongly against Great Lakes water diversion. When an Indiana city found high fluoride levels in its water, and wanted to tap into the Great Lake’s basin, Engler objected. Later, he said no to the diversion of groundwater from a Wisconsin mine. And in Ohio he would only agree to a diversion that guaranteed all water would be returned to the basin in ideal condition.

A year ago this spring, in the village of Webster, New York a very similar situation arose. Webster decided to bottle water from a village spring that was hydraulically connected to Lake Ontario. When Governor Engler heard about it, he was disturbed enough to write to the mayor, “Webster is located within the Great Lakes Basin. Even though the water in question is ground water, it appears to be hydraulically connected to Lake Ontario. If this proves to be the case, then the diversion or export of this water out of the basin will require the approval of each governor from the eight Great Lakes states.”

The truth is, the rules for Great Lakes water diversion aren’t clear, and that became painfully evident in 1998 when a Canadian businessman came up with a plan to export tankers of Great Lakes water to Asia. The plan was eventually nixed, but the eight Great Lakes governors, as well as the Canadian government became so alarmed that they began to work together to firm up the Great Lakes Charter, the 1985 agreement between the United States and Canada to manage the Great Lakes -- to prohibit water diversion, among other Great Lakes issues. The new proposals are known as the Water Security Pact or Annex 2001.

Meanwhile, some environmentalists believe that Michigan laws already exist on how to deal with the Perrier/Ice Mountain situation. In September 2001 the controversy reached a climax. A lawsuit was filed by the Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation in an attempt to guard against the privatization of Michigan’s water.

But, as of this summer, that lawsuit is still pending. The Great Lakes governors and Canada missed a deadline earlier this summer due to internal disagreements.

For the moment, the hubbub over Ice Mountain seems far away. Another Amish carriage rolls by the plant, while inside, one more bottle of Mecosta County water rolls out of the plant. The protest comes to a peaceful end, and even the police help clean up with a smile. The plant was slowed down for seven hours. As for Spaulding, she would have liked to have seen more protesters and the plant shut down completely. Nevertheless, she points out: “People were willing to stand up for the cause.”

Posted by editor at August 1, 2002 07:41 PM

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