The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says it will decide in about 90 days on a request to pump 7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan as part of a proposed Foxconn manufacturing complex state leaders have pushed as a major job creator.
The DNR on Monday released the Racine Water Utility’s application for an exception from a Great Lakes Compact ban on new or expanded diversions of water to places outside the Great Lakes basin.
But an attorney who was involved in the development of the Wisconsin law implementing the compact said the state may be moving too quickly and risking a precedent that could make it impossible to say no to private demands for excessive withdrawals of fresh water in the future.
“I want to make sure we aren’t rushing through the process and that Wisconsin is doing its due diligence,” said Jodi Habush Sinykin, a Midwest Environmental Advocates attorney.
A DNR official and a lawyer who worked on the Foxconn water plan said it is consistent with the law and won’t skirt conservation criteria.
In recent months the Legislature, Gov. Scott Walker and local governments have approved an estimated $4.5 billion in taxpayer subsidies for the Taiwan-based Foxconn, which hopes to build a $10 billion complex employing as many as 13,000 workers to build and assemble liquid crystal display panels.
The manufacture of LCD panels for televisions and other electronic devices requires very large amounts of water to clean each layer of circuitry as it is fabricated, because even a speck of dust can disrupt the circuit signals.
Under state law, the water would need to be treated before it is pumped back into the lakes. An average of 2.7 million gallons per day would be consumed, mostly through evaporation, the DNR said.
Racine’s application to the DNR confirmed predictions by the DNR that review by the other seven states in the compact wouldn’t be necessary even though nearly half the Foxconn complex would be outside the Great Lakes basin.
Racine is proposing to pump the water to the Foxconn development in the village Mount Pleasant, which straddles the boundary between the Lake Michigan drainage basin and the Mississippi River basin.
Sinykin said Racine’s role in the plan may serve to circumvent provisions of the compact and state law designed to restrict large-scale diversions outside of the Great Lakes basin.
The compact and the law allow “straddling” communities like Mount Pleasant who meet certain criteria to be granted exceptions to the diversion ban if the water is used as part of a public water supply and doesn’t add withdrawals over 100,000 gallon per day.
The 7 million gallons would be a major new withdrawal for Mount Pleasant. And with most of the water going to the privately held Foxconn, the project couldn’t be considered a public water system, Sinykin said. Consequently, under the law it would be subject to much greater scrutiny, higher conservation standards and a longer review if the village was taking the lead, she said.
But with Racine applying for the diversion, those obstacles disappear. The Racine water utility already has approval to withdraw much more water than the roughly 17 million gallons per day it is now pumping, so the 7 million gallons a day for the Foxconn development isn’t technically a new or increased withdrawal from Lake Michigan.
And because Racine has thousands of residential customers, its water system would still qualify as a public water system after the addition of Foxconn.
Madison attorney Lawrie Kobza, who worked on the Racine diversion proposal, said she doesn’t see anything in the law to prevent Racine from serving as the applicant.
The DNR’s Eric Ebersberger said Racine’s role in the plan won’t result in any criteria not being applicable.
The Great Lakes Compact was inspired by growth and political clout among arid, southern states. The eight states in the compact wanted to prevent raids on the nation’s largest single source of fresh surface water.
In 2016 the governors of the eight compact states approved a diversion to Waukesha, which is entirely outside the basin. The decision was made after months of debate and despite fears it would set a precedent that would encourage others to line up with their own pipeline proposals.
For the Foxconn proposal, the DNR plans to conduct a public hearing and accept written public comment. Details will be posted on a DNR webpage, the department said.
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