Perrier Bid For Wisconsin Water Steams Environmentalists
By Jeff Mayers, Special to Stateline
The Perrier Group of North America is once again asking the state of Wisconsin for a drink of water. A long, tall one that would put pristine Badger State aqua into fern bars and trendy cafes nationwide.
But as Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson is discovering, Perrier, environmentalism and Wisconsin politics can make for a volatile mix.
Opposition to the Perrier deal stems from 1995, when Thompson and the then-GOP legislative majority made the stateDepartment of Natural Resources a full-fledged cabinet agency with direct links to the governor.
That made the environmental agency a lightning rod for environmentalists claiming it now catered to Thompson and tobusiness interests.
Which paved the way for the latest political flap over Perrier's plans to tap into clear, cold Wisconsin spring water. Connecticut-based Perrier Group of America had been rebuffed once before -- at the source of a beloved south-central Wisconsin trout stream called the Mecan River.
Now the company is eyeing spring water near the Wisconsin Dells in central Wisconsin, despite citizen votes against the proposed drilling and bottling plant.
Although the Perrier proposal hasn't hit the aquifer yet, it's become fodder for an acerbic song Wisconsin environmentalistssing to the tune of the ``Battle Hymn of the Republic.''
``They've made buddies of the DNR and gov'nor Tommy too
There is nothing in Wisconsin they are not allowed to do
We all must be enamored of their corporate point of view
The Group is marching on!
``Glory, glory hallelujah! They see mega, mega moola.
They will really sock it to ya -- Just trust ol' Perrier!
``The mission of the DNR was changed in 95
Protect our streams & wetlands -- HAH!
That's now a bunch of jive
Under Tommy & his henchmen nature no longer can thrive
The Group is marching on!
Confronted with these accusations of political influence at his agency, the mild-mannered lawyer in charge of the DNR,George Meyer, mustered some very strong language. ``A whole bunch of horse manure,'' Meyer said last week when theaccusations bubbled over at a legislative hearing. He calls his agency's civil servants ``beyond reproach.''
Democratic Sen. Alice Clausing targeted by Republicans in her re-election bid in western Wisconsin, chaired the hearing. She presided over five and a-half hours of often-emotional testimony often critical of the DNR. And she pressed the DNR to do a full environmental impact study (EIS).
The DNR voluntarily did something short of an EIS, called an environmental assessment. That study raised no obstacle toPerrier's plans to drill two high-capacity wells near the headwaters of Big Spring Creek in the Town of New Haven inAdams County. Also contained in the Perrier plan is a 1 million-square-foot bottling plant near the wells.
The department also has an agreement in principle with Perrier that guarantees the protection of surface water and wetlands next to the wells, Meyer says.
The DNR is now reviewing Perrier's application. The public comment period ended Friday, Aug. 25, and a decision onpermits is due in several weeks.
``We've done far, far more in this case than ever has been done before,'' Meyer said, denying corners have been cut.
Officials at his agency added that they had no legal authority to prepare an EIS. A proposal shoring up state law governing high-capacity wells failed in the legislative session now grinding to an end. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Legislature has adjourned until January.
But critics claim the DNR analysis is inadequate.
``It seems pretty obvious to me that there's a need for (an EIS)," Clausing said. ``The department would do well to pay more attention to the human issues.'' Clausing said she was worried that the DNR wasn't protecting the public interest.
Ed Garvey, the 1998 Democratic candidate for governor whose firm is helping Perrier opponents, charged that Perrier didn't attend the hearing because the company already was well-represented by the DNR and the Department of Commerce. ``Team Perrier,'' he sarcastically called the agencies.
This prompted the liberal Capital Times newspaper in Madison to opine: ``Now, it seems, the DNR is worse than atoothless tiger. The once great defender of Wisconsin's natural resources stands accused of degenerating into little more than a low-grade economic development agency that represents environmental despoilers.''
In the meantime, Perrier officials are unwilling to call their Big Spring Creek proposal a sure thing.
Kim Jeffrey, president and chief executive officer of the Perrier Group, wrote to Thompson in July after meeting with the governor in a talk aides called routine.
``As discussed, inasmuch as we plan to be successful in the permit stage, the next issue will be our ability to site a plant,'' Jeffrey wrote in his missive, which was published by several newspapers. ``Given your familiarity with the area we are looking at and the challenges in order to meet our own timeline, it will be important to have your public support.
``I realize that this involves investing some political capital. I will understand if you can't do this; just let me know so I can make alternative plans. I recognize that our project, although innocent looking, has been contentious, so I am willing to take a lead on our next steps.''
The next step is up to the DNR and the oft-maligned Meyer.
Jeff Mayers is the president and editor of WisPolitics.com, a new online political and government news service. Go to www.wispolitics.com to find out more about Wisconsin politics and government.