April 25, 2012

Nestlé defends bottled water at Open House

As published in The Erin Advocate

After applying for a 10-year renewal of its well permit and buying the Morette's Furniture factory property as a buffer zone to protect the quality of its product, Nestlé Waters defended its bottled water operations during an open house at the Hillsburgh Community Centre last week.

Ontario's system of well permits is also being challenged in an application to the Environmental Commissioner.

Mike Nagy, Chair of Wellington Water Watchers, and Maude Barlow, Chair of the Council of Canadians, claim that the Permit To Take Water (PTTW) process fails to conform to Ontario's Statement of Environmental Values.

"Public input is not being given adequate weighting in the permit decision process," they said, in their request for a review of the system, pointing out that related impacts such as pollution from trucking and plastic waste are not evaluated. "Additionally, the PTTW process does not consider the negative impacts of climate change on ground water recharge."

John Challinor, Director of Corporate Affairs for Nestlé Waters Canada, said that current regulation by the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) does ensure the public is "adequately protected" and that he is not concerned about the challenge.

"I don't think it's going to have any impact," he said at the open house.

The company is permitted to extract up to 1.1 million litres per day in Hillsburgh, but the average is about 25 per cent of that. There are peak periods with a higher pumping rate, especially in the summer when there is more demand for bottled water, said Challinor.

Liz Armstrong of the Climate Change Action Group of Erin (CCAGE) said the seven days' notice for the open house was insufficient, and that a well-advertised public meeting is needed for people to hear a presentation and ask questions. There was no opportunity for The Advocate to notify the broader community, and town councillors were busy with a regular meeting on the same night.

The company is under no obligation to hold such an event, and Challinor said there will be no immediate follow-up. While anyone was welcome to attend, the open house was not intended as a full public meeting. About 100 invitations were delivered to "neighbours" with wells that draw from the same part of the aquifer.

Challinor said the open house was scheduled as soon as possible after Nestlé submitted its application for a permit renewal, and the Town was notified.

"It is not a municipal matter," he said. Next month, Nestlé will meet with the Town, the conservation authorities and the Environment and Natural Resources Ministries to share data, answer questions and discuss issues.

Nestlé is the world's largest multinational food and bottled water corporation, and last year was listed in the Fortune Global 500 as the world's most profitable corporation. Its bottled water sales total about $10 billion and its water-taking has sparked controversy in several countries.

Tonight (Wednesday) at the Erin Legion, at 7 pm, there will be a showing of the film Bottled Life – The Truth About Nestlé's Business With Water, a recent documentary highly critical of the company. Admission is free, with donations appreciated.

The local Nestlé well property is located just west of Hillsburgh and the Credit River, between 22 Sideroad and Station Road. The well itself is 128 feet deep, located in the northwest section near Station Road and the Sixth Line. Tanker truck access is on the southeast side. The Hillsburgh water is shipped to Aberfoyle, south of Guelph, where Nestlé has another well and a bottling plant.

As a condition of its permit, Nestlé is responsible to the MOE to monitor and report water levels on the surface and underground. A network of monitor wells, including sensors installed in the wells of local property owners, measures the impact of the operation. In addition to water quantity, the quality is tested for possible contaminants, and the data is shared with the property owners at no charge.

"Our testing is more sophisticated than the municipality's," said Challinor.

Nestlé is nearing the end of a five-year permit for Hillsburgh. The public will be able to make comments on the renewal through the Ontario government's Environmental Bill of Rights Registry at www.ebr.gov.on.ca. The government's responses to objections made in 2007 can also be read on the site. People can email Environment Minister Jim Bradley at: minister.moe@ontario.ca.

While Nestlé was obliged to increase monitoring of water levels, the ministry found in 2007 that the data had shown the well to have "no significant impact" on groundwater. Credit Valley Conservation and the Town of Erin said they have seen no impact on surface water, while staff with the ministry and Grand River Conservation found the surface data inconclusive.

Nestlé is also obliged to deal with potential conflict between their well and the two municipal wells in Hillsburgh. Based on maps released recently for local Source Protection Areas, the zones of influence for the wells appear to be separate.

"It's a common resource," said Tom Roberts of Erin, at the open house. "We should be getting something for it. It's being used for profit by a big company."

Nestlé pays the province $3.71 for each million litres taken, and makes contributions of at least $10,000 per year to Town of Erin projects such as McMillan Park and the planned Skatepark.

Challinor pointed out that most businesses don't have to pay any special fee for the water used in their products. He said the provincial fee might not be appropriate, but wouldn't say if it is too high or too low. "We are willing to pay for the research to set a proper fee," he said.

"I'm not happy with the taking of water," said Town Councillor Jose Wintersinger, in a public discussion of the issue the following evening, at the Fast Forward Film Festival. "But it is a provincial issue, and we as councillors don't have any more influence than you do. However, it doesn't mean that we as council can't band with you and help you as the process unfolds.

"If everybody stopped drinking bottled water, we'd have them under control, since there would be no market."

Nestlé plans to demolish the Morette's furniture factory on the nearby land it bought last month. It is a cement structure originally used for potato storage, built next to the old CPR rail line by grist mill operator John Awrey. In 1958 it was converted to a furniture factory by Bruce Morette.

The company will eventually host a meeting for people to discuss ideas about what could be done with the Morette's property. It is not intended for a back-up well the company has been considering. The land will be returned to a natural state as a "permanent buffer" to protect the main well.

"We were concerned about residential development and septic systems," said Challinor. The company planted 2,500 pine trees on the property last week, and is considering ideas such as a community garden, a playground and a trail loop connected to the nearby Elora-Cataract Trailway.

Cynthia Canavan lives in the area directly influenced by the Nestlé well, but says she has not noticed any impact on her well.

"It does worry me, but based on their numbers, the water levels seem to be consistent," she said. "They seem to have it under control."

A well protection agreement between Nestlé and Erin is designed to provide rapid response to any complaints by well owners. The firm promises to pay for scientific evaluation and to fix or replace any well that fails because of their water taking. They also promise to cut back or stop production during drought conditions, if they decide it is necessary.

Part of the Nestlé property is farmed, but as a precaution for the groundwater, only organic methods are used. There is water close to the surface in the area, but beneath it is a layer of till about seven metres thick – an almost impervious barrier of clay and silt that helps protect the deeper aquifer where the water is drawn.

Environmental groups often point out that the pumping of oil is heavily taxed, while the taking of water is not. Challinor said this is not a valid comparison.

"Unlike oil, water is a renewable resource," he said. "Our pumping can't permanently impact the aquifer."

In a press release, critics of the Nestlé well said any permit to bottle water represents a net loss to the environment and health of the planet, and is an unnecessary and wasteful use of what they consider a finite resource.

"There are also issues with huge tanker trucks hauling water 24/7 along our sideroads and highways, including noise, dust, diesel pollution and road wear-and-tear," said Christopher Green, of the newly-formed Friends of Hillsburgh Water. With environmental activists from CCAGE and Wellington Water Watchers, they are campaigning to stop or severely restrict the Nestlé permit and to promote the use of tap water.

Challinor said about 70 per cent of consumers drink both tap water and bottled water, and that bottled water is only a small portion of the beverage marketplace. He argued that his industry's impact on the environment is relatively low.

"Tap water has a lower carbon footprint, but we don't compete with tap water," he said. "People are not leaving tap water to drink bottled water."

Critics point to the use of scarce fossil fuels to make the water bottles; and despite a relatively good recycling rate of 62 per cent, millions of them end up in landfill sites every year. Challinor said Nestlé has the lightest-weight bottles in the industry, to use the minimum amount of plastic.

"We have the highest recycling rate of anything in the grocery store, but we're not going to pat ourselves on the back – there's a lot more we can do," said Challinor. "I believe we can get to 90 per cent, and we are driving that change."