Court Limits Standing to Prevent Bottled Water Plant from Draining Wetlands

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation v. Nestle Waters NA, Inc., 479 Mich 280, 737 NW2d 447 (2007)
Year: 
2007

Conservation Impact of the Case

Negative Outcome

Michigan LCV Analysis

This case examines whether the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) allows "any person" to bring a lawsuit to prevent environmental harm, in this case the depletion of water resources due to a Nestle water bottling operation. The majority's ruling that only citizens with "particularlized injuries" may sue under MEPA was contrary to both precedent and the plain language of the statute, which states that "any person" may sue to prevent environmental harm to the state's resources.

To do this, the Court adopted principles of standing (the ability to sue) based on a federal Constitutional provision which does not exist in the Michigan Constitution. MEPA, in fact, was written to satisfy the Michigan Constitution's mandate that the legislature "shall provide for the protection of the air, water and other natural resources of the state from pollution, impairment and destruction." The majority's ruling to eliminate the ability of any citizen to protect the natural resources of the state severely weakens environmental protection in Michigan. The dissenting opinions would have interpreted the statute according to its plain meaning that "any person" means exactly what the statute says it means: "an individual, partnership, corporation, association, governmental entity, or other legal entity."

Please remember that rulings in environmental cases are often based on non-environmental factors. The University of Michigan Law School did not participate in the rating process and takes no position regarding support or opposition for any judicial candidates.

Case Summary

The Court held that Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) could sue Nestle under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) only for “concrete, particularized injur[ies] in fact” suffered by MCWC’s members as a result of Nestle’s actions. The Court’s decision meant that MCWC could sue Nestle for water extraction that affected the recreational, aesthetic, economic, or property interests of their individual members, but not for water extraction that harmed the environment in general.

What Happened

Donald and Nancy Bollman owned approximately 850 acres of land in Mecosta County surrounding a number of lakes and wetlands. The Bollmans granted Nestle, a bottled water company, the water rights to 139 acres after tests indicated the land contained a reliable source of drinking water, Sanctuary Springs. Nestle planned to pump up to 400 gallons of water per minute and transport it to a bottling facility in Stanwood.

Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting water resources in Michigan. MCWC’s 1,300 members include 265 people who own land in the area affected by Nestle’s activities. MCWC sued Nestle to stop the water extraction. MCWC argued the pumping would irreparably harm the local environment, particularly bodies of water known as Osprey Lake, Thompson Lake, the Dead Stream, and Wetlands 112, 115, and 301. MCWC was joined in the suit by members with property on the Dead Stream and Thompson Lake.  

Legal Dispute

Can Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation sue Nestle Waters under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act to stop environmental damage to water bodies that MCWC’s members do not use?  

Court Decision

The Court held that MCWC could sue Nestle under the Michigan Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) for damage or potential damage to the Dead Stream and Thompson Lake. MCWC has members who own property on these bodies and can thus show that they will suffer a “concrete, particularized injury in fact” from Nestle’s actions. The Court also held, however, that MCWC could not sue Nestle for damage to Osprey Lake and Wetlands 112, 115, and 301. MCWC had presented no evidence that any of its members used these water bodies, or that their recreational, aesthetic, or economic interests would be impaired by Nestle pumping drinking water from these areas. The Court explicitly rejected the theory that people can sue under MEPA based on a general concern about damage to Michigan’s environment, or that people with a connection to one body of water can sue based on damage to a connected body of water that is part of the same ecosystem.

Justice Weaver dissented, arguing that MCWC could sue Nestle for damage to all of the bodies of water named in the original suit. She argued that MEPA, in keeping with the Michigan Constitution, allows any state citizen to sue to prevent damage to Michigan’s environment regardless of the person’s direct connection to the affected area. Justice Cavanagh concurred with Justice Weaver in her dissent.

Justice Kelly also dissented, arguing that MCWC can sue Nestle based on potential harm to all the affected water bodies. Justice Kelly would not necessarily rely on the broad view of MEPA advanced by Justice Weaver. Instead, she would hold that once MCWC has established a sufficient connection to Thompson Lake and the Dead River, it should also be able to challenge Nestle’s activities as they affect the other water bodies, based on a general interest in environmental protection.