Conservation groups on Wednesday slammed Foxconn Technology Group’s plan to withdraw millions of gallons of water per day from Lake Michigan saying it would violate the intent of a 2008 law aimed at protecting Great Lakes drinking water.
The critics said Wisconsin was rushing to approve a plan that threatened to undermine the Great Lakes Compact, which was enacted to protect the region’s drinking water for the public by limiting withdrawals by private interests outside of the lakes drainage basin.
Nearly half of the sprawling Foxconn manufacturing complex in Racine County would be outside the basin, but the proposal is designed so that the daily withdrawal of 7 million gallons from Lake Michigan would be regulated as a public water supply project within the basin.
“Blurring compact rules here, allowing a key definition’s plain meaning to slide, sets a harmful, undermining precedent at a time when the compact is still new and being tested,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin, an attorney who was involved in developing the state law implementing the compact.
A city of Racine water utility proposal to supply Foxconn with water was the topic of a state Department of Natural Resources public hearing Wednesday evening in Sturtevant.
In a plan backed by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated state Legislature, Taiwan-based Foxconn is to receive $4.3 billion in taxpayer subsidies to build a $10 billion facility employing up to 13,000 workers making liquid crystal display panels for televisions and other devices.
The company and the state insist that all environmental standards would be met, but opponents said little information has been shared with the public.
Foxconn released a statement Wednesday reaffirming its promise to invest in equipment to conserve and reuse water and to remove pollutants from waste water.
“Our compliance with all relevant regulations and a commitment to uphold the high environmental standards we set for ourselves will be regularly audited by various government agencies and our internal compliance teams,” the company said.
Foxconn didn’t respond to requests made Wednesday and previously by the Wisconsin State Journal for more information on how it would meet U.S. environmental standards. Currently all manufacturing of large LCD screens is done outside the U.S.
Groups like Midwest Environmental Advocates, Clean Wisconsin and Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters said the public should know how Foxconn plans to remove pollutants from about 4.3 million gallons a day in waste water that would be returned to Lake Michigan.
And they said the company hasn’t begun to demonstrate it will do enough to reduce the expected loss of about 2.7 million gallons a day mostly through evaporation.
The DNR said it hadn’t decided whether to approve the proposal submitted in January by Racine’s water utility.
“The DNR has not taken a position, nor will it, on any compact compliance issue, until it thoroughly reviews the application and any comments we receive,” said Eric Ebersberger, who is overseeing Foxconn regulatory matters for the department.
“The department feels that the public comment period allows adequate time for anyone to carefully consider the application and comment, and the department’s review period is adequate to allow it to carefully consider the application and comments and judge whether the application meets the required compact criteria,” Ebersberger said.
The DNR will continue to accept written public comment through March 21.
Bill Davis, director of the Sierra Club chapter for the state, said too many questions were unanswered.
“How did they determine the amount of the withdrawal and is this the final number?” Davis said. “What will be in the wastewater that is returned to the Racine treatment plant and do they know the treatment plant can handle it?”
Less scrutiny for public water supply
The Great Lakes Compact bans major diversion of water outside the lakes drainage basin — but there are exceptions.
In 2016, after a lengthy study and debate, the compact states approved a controversial proposal to provide drinking water to Waukesha, which is outside the basin, on the condition that all the water be treated and returned to Lake Michigan.
The Foxconn plant would be in the village of Mount Pleasant, which is partly in the basin and partly out, so the compact and the law allow the DNR to decide on the diversion without a vote by the other states.
The involvement of Racine’s water utility may further quicken the Foxconn project’s pace.
The compact law allows exceptions to the diversion ban for “straddling” communities like Mount Pleasant that meet certain criteria, and if the diversion is for a public water supply — defined as “largely residential” — and doesn’t add withdrawals over 100,000 gallon per day.
The DNR would need to look more closely and apply higher conservation standards for a major new diversion to serve a private company that isn’t entirely in the basin.
But Foxconn isn’t officially asking for the diversion. Neither is Mount Pleasant. The applicant is the Racine water utility. The water utility is inside the basin, and it would fold Foxconn into its mostly residential customer base.
Sinykin and others said applying the lower standard to the project may meet the letter of the compact law, but not its intention of protecting drinking water from being drained away for private purposes.
Racine water utility general manager Keith Haas defended the plan, saying 92 percent of Mount Pleasant is within the basin, most current water customers in the village are residential and Foxconn workers will be members of the public who need clean and safe water.
The compact was hammered out in 2008 after an Ontario firm unveiled plans to ship 158 million gallons a year from Lake Superior to Asia. It never happened, but the proposal shocked regional leaders who realized that arid, drought-ravaged nations and communities might covet the Great Lakes as a solution to their water woes.
Peter Annin, co-director of a Northland College water center and author of “The Great Lakes Water Wars,” said the proposal could face a legal challenge. For now, the matter is laced with political considerations, including Walker’s re-election bid.
“A lot of people are upset with the hubris with which Wisconsin has been dismissing environmental laws in order to grease the wheels for Foxconn,” Annin said.
The Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.