The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, (MDHS). recently told the people of Benton Harbor — a predominantly Black city in southwest Michigan — to stop drinking, cooking or brushing their teeth with local tap water. “Out of an abundance of caution,” state officials instead recommended using bottled water to avoid the toxic taint of lead flowing through the city’s water system and, ultimately, into residents’ homes and their bodies.
Along with 20,000 bottled water cases, the warning was issued approximately three years After testing first revealed lead levels beyond the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb). The “action level” is the legal threshold that triggers regulatory action. In fact, little was done while the town’s drinking water “failed to meet standards for six consecutive sampling periods over the last three years” AfterThat was the first test. All this happened over three years After Michigan added a “Lead and Copper Rule” to the Michigan Safe Drinking Water Act in 2018.
That rule, added in response to the Flint water crisis, required the “removal of all lead service lines in Michigan” and “the lowering of the 15 ppb” standard to “12 ppb on January 1, 2025.” Perhaps most galling for the people of Benton Harbor, the rule promises that the “State will work closely with local water authorities to rapidly respond to any test results showing high lead levels, including enforcing steps to lower lead levels that are required by State regulation.”
Unfortunately for the approximately 10,000 residents of Benton Harbor, it wasn’t until September 30 of this year, a week prior to the official warning, that, according to local TV station FOX17, MDHS finally began “distributing cases of bottled water to anyone living in Benton Harbor.” It wasn’t until October 11, five days after the aforementioned warning, that they offered “free lead blood tests for children” and “home inspections for anyone who shows signs of lead in their system.”
State officials and volunteers have since poured case after case of “free” bottled water into the increasingly furious town. Some residents waited longer than an hour and a halfPotable water should be readily available at their homes. However, much like the tale of Flint, where lead contamination was discovered 180 miles east of Benton Harbor. The iconic image of government failure is the arrival corporate-branded bottled drinking water. Again, bottled water comes to the rescue and provides residents with safe, clean water.
Irony and Lead
The irony doesn’t stop there, though, since much of the bottled water we drink is just packaged tap water. 2018 study by Food & Water Watch found that private companies pull 64 percent of their bottled water from municipal tap water sources. If it is filtered, like Coca-Cola’s Dasani ($1.06 b2020 Sales: illion) and Pepsi’s Aquafina ($1.06 b2020 Sales: illion),The “process removes beneficial minerals such as calcium and magnesium,” which, Montana State University exercise physiology professor Dan Heil told the Los Angeles Times, “does not support the premise that pure water is healthier or better for the body than tap water with naturally occurring minerals.”
Despite this fact, International Bottled Water Association’s Vice President of Communications Jill Culora assuredMagazine for the grocery industry The Shelby Report that “consumer preference for healthy hydration is really good news for public health.” A January 2021 market analysis by Grandview Research sees “rising consumer consciousness towards the health benefits of consuming bottled water” driving “market growth over the forecast period” of 2021-2028. The bullish report also notes that “bottled water rather than ordinary water … seems to have hit a sweet spot with health-conscious buyers.”
Somehow, the irony that “health-conscious” Americans find themselves ever more reliant on often microplastic-tainted, chemical-leaching bottles of water hasn’t quite registered in a nation struggling to replace a crumbling water infrastructure of up to 12 million lead pipesCurrently, they deliver potentially poisonous waterTo nearly 22 million people. Private corporations have been stealing public water supplies or simply filtering tap water for many Americans. often needlesslyRefrain from drinking alcohol before it has been packaged. petrochemically produced plasticThey were then sold back to them for as high as 2,000 timesThe price of the water that flows from their faucets.
Given that it is a product of what amounts essentially the “Water Company”, it is even more difficult to swallow the fact that this corporately packaged water is repeatedly used to bail out lead-tainted networks. de facto privatization of the public’s water. Michigan has been at center of both water privatization and the lead crisis, not by chance.
Nestlé’s Bitter Harvest
In 2017, the state of Michigan ended a subsidy that paid about two-thirds of Flint’s residents’ water bills, according to a Flint resident who spoke to Michigan Public Radio’s Steve Carmody, “for water that didn’t meet federal quality standards dating back to 2014.” At the same time, the Swiss-based Nestlé S.A.’s Michigan operation was humming along approximately 123 miles to the northeast in rural Mecosta County. Bloomberg Businessweek reported on the venture, which was pouring “local spring water into 8-ounce to 2.5-gallon containers” with most of the lines running “24/7, each pumping out 500 to 1,200 bottles per minute.” Sixty percent of the water was delivered by a 12-mile pipeline leading back to Mecosta’s springs. The remainder was shipped 40 miles from Osceola County. They produced up to 3.5 Million bottles per day.
That year, Nestlé’s bottled water business racked up $7.7 billion in worldwide sales, with, the report noted, “more than $343 million of it coming from Michigan, where the company bottles Ice Mountain Natural Spring Water and Pure Life, its purified water line.” Amazingly, Nestlé only needed to pay a nominal $200 annual paperwork fee for each of its bottling facilities to secure the rights to extract, package, sell and export Michigan’s water. The people of Flint, as we now know, are not immune to the water extraction, packaging, sale, and export rights of the water. Benton HarborAnd HamtramckAnd WayneAmong perhaps yet untold others, had varying degrees of lead-tainted water flowing into their homes, Nestlé was paying next to nothing to pull “millions of gallons” of Michiganders’ precious resource and sell it for millions in profit. This was not only a profitable venture, de factoHowever, the Michigan people were not affected by the privatization. subsidizing Nestlé’s operations with dirt-cheap liquid gold.
It’s a profitable model Nestlé replicated around the United States.
California’s San Bernardino National ForestIt is located approximately 74 miles east of the notoriously thirsty but endemically water-starved Los Angeles. Los Angeles. Big Bear LakeAnd Strawberry Creek, it is also a primary source of Nestlé’s “almost mythically pure” Arrowhead-brand mountain spring water. Sunset Magazine found that Nestlé took “an average of 62.6 million gallons of water from the San Bernardino Forest each year from 1947 to 2015,” but it paid just $524 annually under a since-expired 1978 permit. Despite the expiration, Nestlé continued to pay the paltry sum until an outcryThe U.S. Forest Service issued a new permit in 2018 thanks to citizen activists and a new annual fee in 2018. a mere $2,000.
However, on April 23 of this year, the California State Water Resources Control Board hit Nestlé with a draft “cease and desist” order claiming it is illegally divertingMillions of gallons of water are being used to exceed its annual water allowance of 7.26 acres. This amounts to approximately 2.3million gallons. Instead, Nestlé slurped upIn 2020, the Strawberry Creek headlands will provide water for 180 acres (or 58 million gallons). Nestlé’s Arrowhead is still slurping and profiting. The draft letter was finally published several months later. still awaits final approvalFrom the California State Water Resources Control Board.
It is a great product. Pure Life brand, Nestlé taps the municipal city water systems of Sacramento, Livermore, Pasadena, Ontario, Los AngelesAnd Cabazon. Pure Life and other bottled-water companies in Sacramento pay $1 per 100 cubic feetJust like residents and local business, city water is available. The main difference is says Sunset, is that “the benefit does not return to the community as most bottles are exported outside the local community.” And, of course, they enjoy a profitable markup.
Pure Life pulled in 35 million gallons of water per year from Phoenix, Arizona until it shut down. controversialPlant after less than 3 years of operation. To Sunset’s point regarding Pure Life’s unbeneficial Sacramento operation, the $35 million of investment Nestlé made in its Phoenix operation only translated into just 15 jobs lostThey shut the spigot off that plant in 2019
Irony in a story full of ironies is that both are ironic CaliforniaAnd Arizona, Phoenix in particular, have been dealing with climate-related droughtsThese restrictions are limiting the flow of water. farmsOver the last year, it has grown to more and more residents. It seems counterproductive for corporations to bottle potable waters and repackage them in oil-based plastic. This plastic is expected to emit more carbon than coal by 2030. Even worse, these plastic water bottles must be transported through an oil-driven supply system so that they can be bought at a premium and then brought back to homes by people who should be able to access it safely and efficiently via their taps. That the public’s water is being tapped for corporate packaging and resale for a tidy profit in water-scarce, drought-affected regions is sadly emblematic of a parasitic process of privatization that, in the long run, seems both foolhardy and wholly unsustainable.
Sharks in the Sea
As Bloomberg Businessweek pointed out in its 2017 exposé, Nestlé’s predatory operation indentified “areas with weak water regulations or lobbies to enfeeble laws,” thus opening the door, and the spigot, to this de facto privatization process.
But Nestlé is not alone.
As Consumer Reports noted in 2020, “a 262,000-square-foot Coca-Cola manufacturing facility … buzzed with activity” on the west side of Detroit while many other businesses were forced to suspend operations in response to COVID-19 shutdowns. Coca-Cola’s Dasani brand churned out its profitable bottled water, which earns the company over $1 billion in annual sales, by “purchasing, treating, and bottling municipal water before selling it at a significant upcharge to consumers.” Pepsi’s Aquafina brand follows the same profitable model for the water it bottled in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with, Consumer Reports found, a markup that’s “around 133 times greater” than its purchase price from public water systems.
Detroit is back Consumer ReportsCoca-Cola also paid an average cost per gallon of $0.01 for municipal water. After running it through a filter and packaging it, they charged a wholesale price for the same gallon. Amazingly, the markup was not sufficient to stop Coca-Cola failing to pay its bill. Residents were at risk of having their water cut off if they owed $150 or more, or if they paid their bill 60 days late. This happened to approximately 2,800 households at the beginning of the pandemic. However, Coca-Cola continued to fall behind on its bills, reaching $287, 250 at one point. However, unlike the cash-strapped Detroiters who had their water shut off due to late payments or $150 in arrears, Coca-Cola could continue tapping the municipal water supply without interruption. As a result, Consumer Reports’ damning exposé, the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department explained the delinquency away as the result of “errors on the city’s part, including address mailing issues.”
When Sunset Magazine looked deeply into the “plundering” of California’s water, they found CG RoxaneCrystal Geyser is now owned by, The company generated $36 millionIn 2020, plastic bottles will hold 42 million gallons. Their water is partially sourced from “groundwater and well water from Weed,” a small city near the base of drought-affectedMount Shasta, and Olancha (an unincorporated town located near the Los Angeles aqueduct. The aqueduct has funneled water 233 mile from the Owens RiverLos Angeles since 1913.
The company was attracted in part by Olancha’s reliable groundwaterIt has been known to persist even in drought years. The problem was that it contained naturally occurring arsenic. Crystal Geyser then filtered it to meet federal drinking-water safety standards. For 15 years the company illegally stored the hazardous byproduct of this process in “the Arsenic Pond,” thus endangering the “area’s groundwater and wildlife,” according to a Department of Justice investigation. Crystal Geyser also dumped “23,000 gallons of their toxic, potentially carcinogenic water into California sewers.” As Sunset bluntly put it, “the cost to the company is a $5 million fine, which is not considered a threat to their business.”
After years of controversy and battles with local activists, Nestlé S.A. finally relented and sold Nestlé Waters North America, including its Ice Mountain bottled water operations in Michigan, to a pair of New York-based private equity firms, One Rock Capital Partners and Metropoulos & Co. After the $4.3 billion deal, the firms rebranded the operation as “Blue Triton Brands” and curtailed its gallons per minute (gpm) extraction rate in Michigan to 288 gpm, which falls below a field-monitoring regulatory threshold established in response to years of controversy around Nestlé’s operations in the state. Blue Triton now includes the Ice Mountain as well as Poland Spring and Zephyr Hills, Arrowhead and Pure Life. 414,720 gallons per dayAn annual cap of 20,059,039 gallons.
Nestlé remains a world leader in bottled water despite the exit, and it has retained its hold on well-known “premium brands” Perrier, S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Nestlé’s retention of Perrier seems fitting since Perrier’s health and luxury branding in the late ‘70s set the stage for the transformation of the bottle water business into a multibillion-dollar behemoth.
Perrier, which had been part of a “niche” market of mineral waters, rose from 3 million bottles in 1975 to approximately 200 million bottles on the eve of the 1980s. Propelled by a marketing campaign emphasizing both the healthfulness and the luxury cache of the water’s “French pedigree and premium price,” as food writer Robert Moss detailed in Serious Eats, Perrier capitalized on “baby boomers’ growing desire for status as the generation shed its tie-dyed T-shirts and started entering the corporate world.”
Perrier was able to acquire 85 percent of the market by 1980, when Ronald Reagan was elected. It was it stumbled in 1990 when “traces of benzene … prompted a nationwide recall and sent the company’s sales plummeting.” Other companies grabbed up Perrier’s lost customers, and within two years, Nestlé grabbed Perrier, forming the global bottled water titan it is today.
Don’t Be Naïve
Did you know that “Evian” is “naïve” spelled backwards?
This was the joke they told when they were both in their twenties. Evian brand and bottled water became ubiquitous in the early ‘90s. But now the joke’s on us, and the punch line is found in the bottom lines of corporations that rake in billions by often taking tap water or water from the commons, bottling it and selling it back to us for a hefty profit.
Perhaps the most egregious irony is the fact that Americans used bottled water more than public water. This is because it is privatized water. It’s not coincidental that Americans conspicuously consumed more and more bottled water during the luxury-branded era of conspicuous consumption, or that this thirst coincided with the coming of the so-called Reagan Revolution and its broad attack on the nature and efficacy of government and government regulation.
It was a significant political shift rooted in the neoliberal idea that government regulation was inherently evil, privatization was intrinsically good, and government should always been viewed with suspicion and disdain. It also brought with it a disregard of public investments that were not associated with the military industrial complex. While companies like Nestlé took advantage of the Reagan-stoked deregulatory wave, crucial infrastructure was left to decay and long-overdue upgrades left off the agenda. Indifference to public investments over the decades has led to lead-tainted water that persists today. This makes it unsafe and unpalatable for citizens who have to rely on bottled water.
Perhaps that’s why the people of Benton Harbor are not laughing. They, like the lead-impaired residents of Flint; Jackson, Mississippi; Clarksburg, West Virginia; Newark, New Jersey; Olean, New York; Racine, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; Cincinnati, OhioThey face a long, expensive road of restoration and reconstruction. Millions more may be able to learn that their pipes work. more than just water.
The recently passed $1.2 trillion “bipartisan infrastructure bill” allocates$55 billion is dedicated to water-related expenditures and $15 billion for leadpipe remediation. Estimates for replacing all of the nation’s lead lines range from $28 billion to as high as $60 billion, so it’s hard to view $15 billion as anything more than a good start.
In fact, it’s only about $1 billion more than the nearly $14 billionThis year alone, Americans spent $1.2 billion on the privatized water supply they prefer to use in a plastic bottle.