Nestle Water, the North American subsidiary for Nestle, is trying to obtain a bulk water extraction permit to build and operate an extraction facility in the town of Kunkletown. The company has had a presence in the town for a number of years, undertaking well testing on private property and renting office space in the community center. If successful, it would be allowed to drill two wells from the aquifer, which equates to about 200,000 gallons per day. It would then transfer the extracted water to the already existing bottling factory in Allentown. Transporting that amount of water would require approximately 60 truck trips per day through the streets of the small town. The permit is for 10 years, with the option to extend another five years. The total amount of water extracted over this time would equate to 73 million gallons.
The only way a permit of this kind can be approved is if the local zoning laws allow. When residents became concerned about Nestle’s interest in the town, their inquiries uncovered that a May, 2014, ordinance for the Eldred Township had changed the rules to allow a water extraction facility to operate in a commercial zone. [The secretiveness surrounding the ordinance implementation is currently the subject of a lawsuit against Eldred Township Board of Supervisors].
The community generally is involved in a steady resistance to the company takeover of its water, through the organization of local groups and meetings. This led to the Eldred Township Planning Commission (which advises the Zoning Board) holding an open meeting where both the the public and Nestle were allowed to make comments. In March this year the Planning Commission made a recommendation to the Zoning Board to deny the permit application to Nestle. The Zoning Board is currently in the process of making a decision.
Nestle’s response to the online article (the subject of this commentary) seems to miss the whole point of what’s at stake. It defends itself over issues of public transparency, the details about who knew what and when, how their application concerns a “special exception” to the zoning permit application, a discussion of the findings of the Planning Commission over the interpretation of results from aquifer testing, the effect on wells, and clearing their name over any involvement with the ordinance change.
The issue is so much bigger than anything Nestle has mentioned in its response. An operation of this kind would bring about enormous profits for this company. The situation with any sort of resource extraction, whether it be oil, minerals, or water, is that practically no cost is required to be paid for the resource itself. Water extraction in the large quantities predicted for the town, if the permit is approved, are not sustainable in a world that faces increasing water scarcity. The links between climate change and drought have been documented and drought is becoming more pervasive in many areas of the United States. This means groundwater sources are being tapped more, which threatens to dry up our aquifers. De-regulation is also a threat to our clean water supply as industries pollute the waterways without any penalties. The government is also not placing enough money into maintaining and upgrading the public water infrastructure. The consequence is an increase in public health issues as took place in both Michigan and New Jersey with the leaking of lead into its water supplies. These compounding factors open the way for corporations like Nestle to take advantage of the problem, move in and privatize the current water sources for a profit. These corporations are also notorious at targeting small communities which are vulnerable due to their depressed economies. Their bargaining power is less when jobs and economic development is offered in return for their water.
The situation in Kunkletown raises the very important issue over how water should be viewed – as a profit making commodity or a human right which the public should have full access to. I think the answer is obvious!