Hood River News: Quiet visitor packs potent question for Cascade Locks

Hood River News
Julie Raefield-Gobbo

A soft-spoken, retired librarian from Michigan arrived in Oregon on June 24 to bring with her a giant-sized and common-sense message: "Buyer beware."

In this case, the "buyer" - or perhaps "seller" - Terry Swier is addressing is the town of Cascade Locks, which is in negotiations with Nestlé Waters North America over the installation of a water bottling plant.

The Cascade Locks City Council will soon be asked to decide on a proposed Nestlé plant that would bottle 100 million gallons of water per year from the town's aquifer and nearby Department of Fish and Wildlife Oxbow Spring.

Concerns over the proposal center on something highlighted by Swier in her visit: Can a small town afford to protect itself in the event of a contract dispute with a large multi-national corporation?

Swier offered details on her community's experience and her nonprofit's legal battle with Nestlé while speaking at the Cascade Locks City Council meeting June 25.

"We have over a million dollars in legal (and hired-expert) debt to pay off as a result of an eight-year, multi-court legal battle with Nestlé," said Swier.

Swier founded the nonprofit group Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, which went on to win many points of its suit against Nestlé, which finalized in 2009.

As a result, Nestlé was required to lower the company's water pumping and reduce negative impact on lakes, streams and groundwater near the town of Mecosta, Mich., home to another Nestlé bottling facility.

The Michigan Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of MCWC's right to sue, saying that Nestlé was appropriately challenged. Nestlé had argued against MCWC's right to sue to protect local water resources.

The final Supreme Court ruling also upheld an earlier court ruling that reduced Nestlé's plant pumping to nearly one-half of previous levels.

According to Swier, MCWC opted "not to ask for reimbursement for legal costs" in the settlement with Nestlé - instead focusing on forcing either a complete stoppage or a monitored, reduced water-draw from the private property pump site controlled by Nestlé.

"We will be paying off our debt for many years to come," said Swier, "but we do feel that we have protected our watershed for future generations."

While the details of the watershed differ between Michigan and Oregon, the larger question of how a small town might handle a large corporate lawsuit lay at the heart of Swier's message to Cascade Locks.

Swier and MCWC members organized when they learned of the deal between Nestlé and a local landowner which would pump 210 million gallons of spring water per year, for decades, from the local aquifer. That aquifer connected to multiple lakes and streams and impacted multiple property owners.

"It has been proven in the courts that irreparable harm would occur to the waterways due to pumping by Nestlé," said Swier. Michigan lower court records concur with Swier's statement.

Cascade Locks Mayor Lance Masters heard Swier's short presentation to the City Council on Monday night.

"It is pretty clear she has been through a long, drawn-out struggle in her community in Michigan," said Masters in a follow-up interview. "She shared how difficult the struggle was and she highlighted a few key points that we will add to our research.

"One thing is that we hadn't yet talked about - and I hate to speculate on this - but if there is a breach of a contract or an agreement, how does the city pay for the legal work required?" said Masters. "We don't budget that much for a city attorney for our existing needs."

Port Commission President Jessie Groves issued a statement about Swier's visit and said in part, "We are deeply cautious of these outside groups who have decided to use our hometown to forward their national agendas."

According to Swier, she continues to travel anywhere she is invited to speak, out of a "sense of responsibility to any small community who is dealing with Nestlé or water issues." She has also testified before Congress.

For her recent visit to Oregon, Swier was flown in to speak in Cascade Locks and Portland by Bark, a Portland nonprofit and one of two groups protesting the proposed use of Oxbow Spring waters in the Cascade Locks Nestlé operations.

Swier also spoke to community members at an informal gathering earlier in the day at the Charburger Restaurant. Tiffany Pruitt, a former Cascade Locks City Council member, was in attendance at the Charburger gathering.

"I am not 100 percent against this project but I am very concerned about our city council doing their own, independent, due diligence work and not relying on Nestlé for information," said Pruitt. "A memorandum of understanding is not enforceable and, if there is a problem, who is going to lose - the huge corporation or the citizens?"

"The Port and City of Cascade Locks are undertaking rigorous due diligence on this opportunity and have engaged experts in a variety of fields to assist us in this effort," said Groves' statement.

Masters confirmed that an analysis of several water bottling facilities is slated to be contracted out to the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, although Mecosta was not on the proposed list for examination.

"We will conduct a thorough analysis of what has happened in towns who have had good relationships with Nestlé and those towns where relationships have gone sour," said Masters. "It would be good to put her town on our list of cities to investigate."

Masters later restated the importance of collecting information which reflected a true perspective on other towns' experiences, and went on to say, "If we get something less than that, we're going to have to find another way to do that due diligence."

On June 26, Swier also spoke at an afternoon rally at Terry Schrunk Plaza in Portland, where approximately 250 people gathered to hear her message.

"I would caution the residents of Oregon and Cascade Locks to ask hard questions of Nestlé and of their appointed government officials," said Swier.

Cascade Locks, in desperate need of living wage jobs, reportedly reminded Swier of her hometown's economic situation.

"I live in one of the poorest counties in Michigan with 29 percent of the families below poverty level. I understand the economics," Swier said. "It is still important to ask hard questions."

Swier's 167-word statement to the city council on June 25 concluded with the following: "Get what you want, not what Nestlé wants. Remember, Nestlé is here in Cascade Locks for its own profit."

To read the final Michigan Supreme Court ruling go to: http://courts.michigan.gov/supremecourt/Clerk/01-07/130802/130802-Opinio....