Pfizer Seeks to Significantly Increase Groundwater Use in the Kalamazoo Region

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PORTAGE, MI – Pfizer, Michigan’s largest industrial user of groundwater, is asking state regulators to approve a big increase in the amount of water it draws from wells at its pharmaceutical manufacturing plant near from Kalamazoo.

A public comment period is open through September 12 on Pfizer’s request to increase its groundwater withdrawal to 4.32 million gallons per day, which the company says is needed to support manufacturing operations on its expanding campus.

Regulators say the increase would bring Pfizer’s annual use of Michigan groundwater to about 6.5 billion gallons per year, which is lower than what the 7171 Portage Road facility has pumped in the past.

About 99% of the increased withdrawals would flow into Upjohn Pond, the company said in its application.

“It’s really not an increase in the amount of water they’ve pumped historically,” said Andrew LeBaron, water use analyst with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Water. Michigan Energy (EGLE). “It’s more to fill the void.”

LeBaron said the requested increase would offset declining production from older wells at the company’s facility and meet the needs associated with the facility’s expansion.

Pfizer, a Manhattan-based multinational pharmaceutical and biotech company, is building a $120 million expansion to its Portage campus this year to increase production of its oral COVID-19 treatment pill Paxlovid. The company has also spent $450 million to expand the facility in 2021 to manufacture sterile injectable pharmaceuticals.

The facility, where COVID vaccines are produced, was visited by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer in 2021 and this year, and US President Joe Biden in 2021.

In 2020, Pfizer used 6.04 billion gallons of groundwater, making it the largest industrial process groundwater user in Michigan.

The Carmeuse Lime calcite quarry near Rogers City, which used 9 billion gallons in 2020 for mine pit dewatering, is classified differently by the state. The St. Marys cement plant in Charlevoix used 4.7 billion gallons of groundwater in 2020.

The state’s largest industrial water users, such as US Steel in Detroit, draw from the Great Lakes.

At Portage, LeBaron said Pfizer has a standing base capacity of about 14.5 billion gallons per year; a level of grandfathered withdrawal that predated 2006 changes in state water use law. The company’s peak usage was around the year 2000, at about 11 billion gallons per year.

The new increase would have “limited potential” to affect surrounding surface water bodies or water supplies, according to the company’s consultant report.

The underlying aquifer is not fully confined and includes layers of clay that impede connectivity between deeper and shallower groundwater, LeBaron said.

Pfizer’s wells would shoot from around 175 feet deep.

Michigan law allows landowners to use groundwater without major fees, charges, or restrictions as long as the pumping does not harm the environment or affect nearby users.

The town of Portage operates nearby municipal drinking water wells, which LeBaron says are close enough to Pfizer’s that there is likely to be an impact in both directions.

“They’re pretty close to where there’s likely interference between the wells, both for the town of Portage and some impact on the Pfizer well,” he said.

The city is not affected.

“The City of Portage has a great working relationship with Pfizer and considers the company one of our key community partners,” Portage spokesperson Mary Beth Block said. “The proposed water project is still in the early stages of licensing. Although further testing is required, it is believed that Pfizer’s application will be successful. The town of Portage draws its water from two aquifers. The design will be rigorously tested with input from Pfizer and City of Portage engineers to ensure there will be no negative impact on the city’s water system.

LeBaron said the state has received no public comment on Pfizer’s request and will not hold a public hearing unless requested.

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