A company's plans to open a bottled water plant in the south Twin Cities metro cleared a major hurdle Tuesday when the state determined it would not harm the environment or local water supply.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) said an environmental review is not needed for the proposed project by Niagara Bottling, a California-based company that sells bottled water to Walmart and Costco. The company plans to bottle, ship and sell up to 310 million gallons of water a year drawn in Elko New Market.
In doing so, the DNR dismissed a request for a more thorough review brought by neighbors and water quality advocates worried about what the pumping will do to rivers, wetlands and the water supply.
"I sure hope they're right," said Tim Zweber, a nearby farmer who helped organize opposition to the plant. "They don't seem very concerned at all and I hope we can trust them."
Before the project can move forward, Elko New Market still needs DNR permission to increase the amount of water it is allowed to pump. The city, which has a population under 5,000, is allowed to pump 135 million gallons a year.
The agency has not made a decision yet on whether to allow the increase.
But in its ruling Tuesday, the DNR dismissed concerns that the additional water use would harm the aquifer that serves much of southern Minnesota, or draw down the Vermillion River or nearby protected wetlands. The agency pointed out that most other cities and towns in Scott County already pump more water than Elko New Market. The city of Shakopee is permitted to pump up to 2.3 billion gallons a year, it said, while the average municipality in the county is allowed to pump up to 778 million a year.
The project "does not have the potential for significant environmental effects," the agency wrote in its decision. It added, however, that "additional analysis" will be conducted as the DNR review's the city's request to increase its water permit.
Residents like Zweber, who rely on their own private wells, are concerned what will happen when the city starts pumping so much more than it ever has. Elko New Market is in one of the metro's fastest-growing areas. Officials expect its population to double by 2040 and to someday reach as high as 80,000.
"Now you've decided to triple the amount of water drawn before the city is even built out," Zweber said. "I'm not concerned so much about today, but what is this area going to look like 15 years from now?"
Niagara Bottling has opened similar plants in New Mexico, Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin in recent years. Company representatives could not immediately be reached for comment. The company has said the new Elko New Market plant would create 59 full-time jobs, with pay averaging between $50,000 to $60,000. The 425,000-square-foot facility would cost $125 million to build and construction could start as soon as April, according to the city.