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Environmentalists criticize exemptions for Foxconn’s $10 billion Wisconsin plant

Written by LOPPW | 08/10/2017

Environmentalists criticize exemptions for Foxconn’s $10 billion Wisconsin plant

Environmental organizations are raising objections over a legislative package exempting Foxconn Technology Group from regulations if the company agrees to build a $10 billion electronics plant in Wisconsin, but Gov. Scott Walker on Tuesday defended the package and said the manufacturer would still have to comply with environmental laws.

The measures proposed by the Walker administration exempt the company from state wetlands regulations and an extensive environmental analysis that some other large projects are subject to.

The analysis, known as an environmental impact statement, could add up to a year to the company’s timetable.

Both are part of a package of economic incentives that Wisconsin officials are proposing for the Taiwan-based company to construct a plant that would produce liquid crystal display monitors for computers and other electronics.

It would be Foxconn’s first LCD plant built outside Asia.

“Rolling back environmental protections to encourage business development in Wisconsin, that’s a red flag for us,” said Jonathan Drewsen, a spokesman for Clean Wisconsin.

Clean Wisconsin and another environmental group, Midwest Environmental Advocates, said the package released late Friday would weaken protections and limit transparency for theproject, expected to be located insoutheastern Wisconsin.

Both groups cautioned that they aren’t fighting Foxconn’s plans to bring jobs to Wisconsin, but want to see environmental rules followed

“A project of this size needs more environmental scrutiny, not less,” attorney Sarah Geers of Midwest Environmental Advocates said in a statement.

“When the Legislature takes away the DNR’s power to act as trustee of our resources, it will fall on citizens to watchdog the permitting process.”

Geers said in an interview that environmental groups are weighing a legal challenge  over whether the state is ignoring its responsibilities to protect public waters.

Electronics manufacturing zone

The incentive package spells out special exemptions for Foxconn by establishing a special electronics manufacturing zone.

Walker and supporters tout the project as a game-changer for Wisconsin. The electronics plant on a yet-to-be-identified site would employ 3,000 people and could employ 13,000 after about six years. The factory is expected to open in 2020.

As they review the incentive package, in addition to Democrats and environmentalists, lawmakers might also feel pressure from some Republicans to extend exemptions for wetlands to all property owners.

Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) questioned why Foxconn should enjoy looser restrictions on wetlands when taxpayers will be bankrolling the incentives going to the company.

“We should take a fresh look at it across the entire state,” he said.

Lawmakers will hold the first public airing of the package on Thursday when the Assembly Jobs and Economy Committee conducts a public hearing at 1:30 p.m. at the Capitol.

Under one change, the DNR would be precluded from conducting an environmental impact statement for the project.

By comparison, Kohler Co.’s plans to build a golf course on Lake Michigan in Sheboygan County requires such an analysis. Waukesha’s plans to use Lake Michigan as a source of drinking water also is subject to such an analysis.

However, the sprawling campus of fast-growing software maker Epic Systems Corp. in Verona in Dane County has not been required to undergo such an analysis.

Walker’s proposal not to require such an analysis has no “regulatory consequence” and is “about streamlining the process, not changing or being lax on environmental requirements,” DNR spokesman Jim Dick said.

Walker told reporters that the company would still need to file an environmental impact statement with federal authorities.

Geers, the attorney, said a federal analysis might be required, but would likely address fewer issues than the DNR.

She emphasized that environmental impact statements play a key role by publicly disclosing the scope of a project and its potential to pollute air and water.

The full impact of Walker’s proposal to exempt wetlands from state review won’t be known until Foxconn identifies a location, Geers said.

Generally, rules require developers to avoid such properties, which have ecological functions for protecting habitat, cleaning water and controlling flooding.

Wetlands come under both state and federal regulation.

In Wisconsin, all wetlands are regulated by the DNR; some of those same wetlands are regulated by the federal government.

Critics say Wisconsin’s wetlands are more regulated than most states.

The worry of environmental groups is allowing Foxconn to be exempted from state regulations could leave the company free to destroy types that are only regulated by the state — those that are isolated and not connected to a stream, lake or river that is navigable.

Walker said Foxconn will be held to a higher-than-usual standard in replacing wetlands wiped out by the construction. Wisconsin law calls for creating 1.2 acres of wetlands for every acre destroyed, but the state’s Foxconn proposal calls for the company to create 2.0 acres of new wetlands for each acre destroyed.

“So it would be a two to one replacement — pretty good deal for people who want wetlands,” he said.

Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.