U.S. Water News Online
LANSING, Mich. -- The Michigan Supreme Court has put limits
on a long-standing state law that allows Michigan citizens to sue
over drilling, dredging and development they think would damage the
The ruling came in a case involving a multinational company's
right to take groundwater for its Ice Mountain bottling plant in
Mecosta County. Local residents had sued Greenwich, Conn.-based
Nestle Waters North America and its bottled water operation in 2001
over potential damages to nearby waterways.
In its 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld Court of Appeals
decisions that said the residents had the legal standing to sue the
company over how its water withdrawals might affect the Dead Stream
and Thompson Lake.
But it disagreed with the lower court's ruling that the residents
also had the legal standing to sue over a nearby lake -- Osprey Lake
Impoundment -- and three wetlands, saying residents didn't prove they
used those areas.
Justice Marilyn Kelly criticized the majority's decision, writing
in her dissent that "it extinguishes a valid cause of action for no
reason other than its belief that the cause of action granted by the
Legislature is too broad."
A Nestle spokeswoman said the court simply was being consistent
with an earlier ruling that limited the law's scope.
But David Holtz, director of Clean Water Action Michigan, said the
court's ruling makes it even more important to pass legislation
protecting Michigan's waters. A package of bills was introduced this
week in the state House to strengthen a permit system for water
"Four justices have cast their vote in favor of big business and
against citizens, local governments and communities," Holtz said in a
release. "Michigan's future is much more at risk today because of the
court's attack on Michigan's constitutionally protected natural
In their majority opinion, Justices Robert Young, Clifford Taylor,
Maura Corrigan and Stephen Markman said citizens can claim an
environmental injury only when they can show that someone's actions
would directly affect their recreational, aesthetic or economic
The opinion also threw out the Court of Appeals finding that many
of the streams, lakes and wetlands in the area where Nestle is
operating are joined by an inextricable, hydrological link.
"If the hydrological links are as the trial court found, then a
reduced flow or water level at one point in the interconnected
hydrological system will have a measurable effect elsewhere in that
system. But plaintiffs still must establish how they have suffered a
concrete and particularized injury in fact within this interrelated
ecosystem," the four justices ruled.
The decision hinged in part on a 2004 ruling by the same four
Although the 1970 Michigan Environmental Protection Act says "the
attorney general or any person" can file suit "for the protection of
the air, water and other natural resources ... from pollution,
impairment or destruction," the justices in their 2004 ruling
rejected the idea that the act allows just anyone to sue to halt
pollution or other environmental degradation.
Nestle spokeswoman Deb Muchmore said the ruling simply reflected
that 2004 decision.
"In no way does this ruling change the fact that MEPA lawsuits can
move forward where the plaintiffs do have standing," she said. She
added that Nestle complies with state environmental regulations and
has not caused adverse effects through its water withdrawals.
Nestle opened a water bottling facility in Stanwood in 2002 about
50 miles north of Grand Rapids and bottled 226 million gallons of Ice
Mountain water last year. The water comes from wells in rural Mecosta
County and from one of Evart's municipal wells.
Local residents argued in their lawsuit that Nestle's groundwater
withdrawals damaged the environment because they lowered water levels
and reduced flows in neighboring lakes, streams and wetlands.
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