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Nestle Waters sale finalized and a day later Ontario lifts moratorium on permits

The 4.3 billion U.S. dollar sale of Nestle Waters North America to One Rock Capital Partners LLC and Metropoulos & Co. was announced in February and the sale closed on Wednesday
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Wellington Water Watchers and Six Nations protesters gather at Nestle Waters in Aberfoyle Saturday. Tony Saxon/GuelphToday

A years-long moratorium on water taking permits in the province ended Thursday, one day after the closing of the sale of Nestle Water North America, which includes the plant in nearby Aberfoyle, was announced.

The moratorium on permits to take groundwater and produce water bottling was put in place by the previous Liberal government in 2016 and extended a number of times since by the current Conservative government. It was ended by the provincial government effective April 1.

In a news release, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks said it is strengthening protection of water resources with changes to the province’s water taking program, including the ability for municipalities to have more input on allowing bottled water companies to withdraw new or increased amounts of groundwater in their communities.

"After many years of public engagement and an extensive review of the province's water taking policies, programs and science tools, we are taking steps to further protect this precious resource," said Jeff Yurek, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. "With these new rules and guidance in place, people can be confident that these valuable water resources in the province are protected by strong policies and managed sustainably for future generations to come."

Follow-up questions sent to the ministry Thursday morning were not answered by press time.

Reached by phone on Thursday, Mike Schreiner, Guelph MPP and Green Party of Ontario leader said he is disappointed the government chose to end the moratorium.

“The regulations themselves need to be made stronger,” said Schreiner, who proposed an amendment to give municipalities and First Nations adjacent to permit applicants the ability to have a say in the process. 

“In Guelph’s case, as a groundwater community, most new water bottling applications will not likely be in the City of Guelph itself but will likely be in areas adjacent,” said Schreiner. “I felt that adjacent municipalities should be able to have the same ability to say no as host municipalities.”

That amendment by Schreiner was ultimately voted down by the PCs, but he said some other recommendations he made were incorporated.

“I pushed really hard for a prioritization schedule so we prioritize water taking for people in communities first, so public drinking water and water for private wells should be the top priority and water taking for commercial and industrial purposes such as water bottling operations and quarries should be down around the bottom of the list. I was happy to see that the government listened on that,” said Schreiner.

Although he welcomes new regulations, Schreiner said he would like to see them go further and apply the framework on all water taking, not just water bottling.

“To me, water is water. Those more rigorous provisions should apply to all water taking,” said Schreiner.

Mike Balkwill, campaign director for Wellington Water Watchers said it is no joke to him that the moratorium ended on April 1 while the sale of Nestle Waters Canada and Nestle’s North American operations has been finalized, sold to two private equity firms that are based in the U.S.

The US$4.3 billion sale of Nestle Waters North America to One Rock Capital Partners LLC and Metropoulos & Co. was announced in February and the sale closed on Wednesday.

“That is a concern. Private equity firms have no experience in water bottling and we are going to be making the case with the minister that these need to be considered new permits, not a transfer,” said Balkwill.

By his reading of the new provisions, a municipality would have the authority to review a new application, but not on the renewal of an existing permit.

“It is critical that this be understood as a new permit. The private equity firms are new owners, it’s a sale and they have no experience in bottling water,” said Balkwill.

In many cases, said Balkwill, private equity firms purchase a business and refashion it to sell off at a profit.

“The worry is they are going to reduce environmental protections and sell it off to who knows who,” said Balkwill of the new owners. “I think the federal competition bureau should look into this.”