The Department of Natural Resources has already brought on a project manager to oversee the expected streamlined environmental permitting for a proposed Foxconn manufacturing plant, Secretary Cathy Stepp said Wednesday.
Stepp told Natural Resources Board members about the move while defending the department’s ability to quickly and effectively write permits setting limits for the factory’s air and water pollution and disposal of hazardous waste.
Walker and many of his fellow Republicans are pushing for quick action. Democrats and conservationist groups say the deal needs much more scrutiny.
Stepp, who is a Walker appointee, said the DNR is ready to go.
The agency has a “team project manager that we brought in to the department to oversee and kind of be a project superintendent for the permitting processes that will be required,” Stepp said. “We stand at the ready.”
The DNR’s Foxconn project manager is Eric Ebersberger, a former deputy administrator for environmental management who led the department’s successful effort to divert Lake Michigan water to Waukesha. He left the department in 2016 and returned Monday as a limited-term employee, said DNR spokesman Jim Dick.
Foxconn and Walker have said the company hopes to create 3,000 to 13,000 jobs on a 1,000-acre site it is seeking in southeastern Wisconsin, but few other details about the factory are known, except that it would make television screens.
“We don’t yet know the scale or the impact or the details, but you know we’ve been trying to figure out ‘what if’ this and ‘what if’ that, and what will our game plan be in order to hit the ground running and make sure that regulatory processes and bureaucracy are not in the way of job creation in Wisconsin, and certainly would not be in the way of environmental protection,” Stepp said.
Some have questioned whether the DNR was prepared after decades of budget cuts, Stepp said.
She insisted that a DNR reorganization that is expected to be approved as part of the proposed state budget has prepared the department.
“There has been some worry that DNR doesn’t have the staff or the ability to take on a project of this magnitude,” Stepp said. “I assure you nothing could be further from the truth.”
Walker’s plan calls for exempting Foxconn from state law that requires a comprehensive environmental impact statement for major construction projects.
The governor’s legislation also would exempt the company from state wetland and waterway regulations, meaning isolated wetlands could be filled, streams could be rerouted and construction could take place on lakebeds without permits. The federal government would require permits for disturbance of wetlands connected to navigable waters.
Stepp reiterated the department’s position that potential environmental harm would be fully investigated during permitting, but conservationists said permit documents are dense reports full of legalese that are much more difficult to understand than environmental impact statements.
Stepp also emphasized that Walker’s proposal calls for filled wetlands that need to be replaced as part of federal permitting would be replaced at a ratio of 2 acres created for every 1 acre filled, instead of the state’s usual 1.2-to-1 ratio. The federal government requires replacement at ratios between 1-to-1 and 3-to-1 depending on circumstances.
“Scrutiny is the same, it’s just the process is going to be shortened so we can get these jobs going on the ground and still have the environmental protection — and I will say even enhancement — as a result of this project,” Stepp said.The state Assembly could consider Walker’s plan next week following a committee vote. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had said lawmakers should first finalize the stalled state budget.
The budget was supposed to be completed June 30. Walker’s agreement with Foxconn calls for enactment of the incentives legislation by Sept. 30.