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Published: Saturday, 12/13/2003

Order banning water removal stands

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

A judge yesterday upheld his Nov. 25 order requiring Ice Mountain Spring Water Co. stop taking water from its four west Michigan spring wells by Tuesday, thereby putting 120 jobs in limbo.

The case has drawn attention throughout the Great Lakes region because of its potential ramifications for the world s largest collection of fresh surface water.

Groundwater replenishes many of the rivers and streams that feed into the lakes.

Legal experts wonder how some major groundwater disputes, such as the one involving Ice Mountain, could affect an agreement Great Lakes governors and premiers are expected to finalize by June as part of a binational effort. That agreement is to limit the amount of water that can be withdrawn from the lakes and sold outside the region.

Judge Lawrence C. Root of Mecosta County Circuit Court ruled Nov. 25 that Ice Mountain, a subsidiary of Nestle Waters North America, was having an excessive impact on west Michigan s groundwater supply since it started bottling its Ice Mountain product there in May, 2002. Ice Mountain initially built a $100 million plant, then spent another $50 million to expand it. The facility is near Stanwood, Mich., 50 miles north of Grand Rapids, Mich.

The judge gave Nestle until Tuesday to cease water withdrawals, claiming that the size of the operation violates the intent of prevailing common law. The company had obtained a permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to withdraw up to 400 gallons a minute, but the judge said that permit was not valid because the Michigan legislature never established parameters for groundwater withdrawals.

Yesterday, he declined to set aside his ruling pending the outcome of the company s appeal, which is expected to take three to five years.

Ice Mountain will seek an emergency stay on Judge Root s order next week from the Michigan Court of Appeals. It also will ask the judge for a new trial, based on data it has collected since Sept. 1. The new data can prove the region s groundwater levels are subject to seasonal variations, spokesman Deborah Muchmore said.

Keeping the order in effect will prompt Nestle to lay off or reassign 120 of the plant s 147 employees by Jan. 31, she said.

“I am sorry to hear of the people who are going to be laid off or terminated. But, as I ve said all along, the judge told Nestle twice - as they were building and as they were expanding - that they were building at their own risk,” Terry Swier, Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation president, said. The group is the plaintiff behind the suit.

The west Michigan facility replaced one near Allentown, Pa., as Nestle s Ice Mountain producer. The Allentown facility, which bottles Nestle s Deer Park and Great Bear products, could wind up as the Ice Mountain producer again, officials have said. The company said it would be impractical to haul spring water to the west Michigan plant from another state. It also does not want to substitute local processed water for spring water, officials said.



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