A massive Foxconn Technology Group manufacturing campus in Wisconsin would test the Taiwan-based electronics giant’s willingness to meet U.S. environmental standards.
Just how tough a test it would be remains to be seen.
The company’s proposal to bring large-scale liquid-crystal-display television manufacturing to the U.S. for the first time comes as state and federal leaders are making pollution watchdogs friendlier to business.
As Wisconsin lawmakers wrestle with a proposed $3 billion incentive package for Foxconn, more questions are surfacing about how Wisconsin’s air and water would be protected from an influx of toxic chemicals used by the LCD industry.
Conservation groups are also concerned about whether the Great Lakes would be harmed by withdrawals needed to quench the plant’s expected need for millions of gallons of water each day.
Environmental advocates point to the LCD panel industry’s reported air and water pollution problems in China, where lax enforcement is attributed in part to investment partnerships between industry and government.
Gov. Scott Walker’s Department of Natural Resources insists that his proposal to streamline environmental permitting for Foxconn wouldn’t lessen the state’s commitment to uphold all standards for clean water, clean air and hazardous waste.
But conservationists note that pollution/article_b4471e0f-538d-5a4e-938e-2972a65d071f.html" target="_blank">shortcomings in Wisconsin’s enforcement of pollution laws have accompanied Walker’s six-year push to make the DNR friendlier to businesses, and President Donald Trump’s Republican administration has launched a broad effort to roll back environmental rules.
“There is a common thread in the water issues we’re dealing with across this state, and it’s unaccountable corporate power and the exclusion of concerns of ordinary citizens,” said Raj Shukla, executive director of the River Alliance of Wisconsin, referring to loosened limits on groundwater withdrawals and persistent water quality problems.
“Foxconn has been touted as a boon to Wisconsin and I hope it is, but it’s not worth it if it destroys the things so many people in this state find so valuable about living here,” Shukla said.
Walker has defended the massive tax break and streamlined environmental permitting by saying Foxconn’s establishment of LCD television production here with up to 13,000 jobs would transform Wisconsin, and most regulations would remain in force.
But Peter Adriaens, a University of Michigan environmental engineer whose research measures the financial risk pollution poses for businesses and investors, said Wisconsin’s heavy investment in Foxconn’s success could make it tough for the state to crack down.
“If Foxconn pollutes, are they going to be losing their permits?” Adriaens said. “Probably not, because there are so many jobs at stake and the state needs them to keep operating because of all the incentives that will have been paid out.”
Foxconn submitted a written environmental pledge on July 31 to a legislative committee considering Walker’s proposed incentives package.
“In our discussions with Governor Walker and his team, we have committed to work closely with the relevant agencies, Wisconsin academic institutions, our own global experts, and others, to ensure that we establish policies and practices that comply fully with all relevant federal, state and local environmental regulations,” the company said.
Responding last week to concerns about its environmental record, Foxconn said Japan, China and Taiwan — where it manufactures LCD panels currently — have strong environmental regulations it is accustomed to following.
But the company said until it selects a site and concludes talks with Wisconsin officials, it can’t answer questions about the pollutants it would need to control, how much water it would use, or the expected cost of environment protections here compared to overseas.
The incentives package awaiting a vote in the state Senate would exempt the company from a requirement for writing an environmental impact statement and obtaining four state permits designed to protect wetlands and waterways.
Walker and the DNR point out that state wastewater, air pollution and hazardous materials regulations remain in place, federal regulations will protect most wetlands, and Foxconn could be held to a higher standard for creating replacement wetlands.
The DNR has rehired an experienced agency administrator to oversee environmental permitting, but the department declined to describe any preparations it may be making or its current practices for regulating pollution that typically comes from LCD manufacturing.
Such talk would be premature because the company hasn’t said which pollutants will be byproducts of the four or more factories it plans on a 1,000-acre campus in southeastern Wisconsin, a DNR spokesman said.
“We have not yet had any communications regarding the company’s manufacturing process, what’s involved, what chemicals may be involved or … waste materials there may be as a result of the company’s process,” said DNR spokesman Jim Dick.
Top DNR officials insist that fines for environmental violations have dwindled because the department works informally with businesses to prevent and correct pollution problems.
‘Huge amounts’ of water, gas, chemicals
A wide variety of pollutants would be expected from the Foxconn factories and an independently operated glass manufacturing plant that would be built next to the LCD facility to supply it with thin 10-foot by 11-foot glass sheets that are impractical to ship, industry experts said.
An LCD plant coats the glass sheets with dozens of intricately patterned layers of thin material that conduct electricity.
Repeated washing of glass as each layer is applied would require nearly 16 million gallons of water a day, according to an estimate by David Hsieh, a director of analysis and research at IHS Markit, a London-based market research company.
An important question for Foxconn will be how to conform to U.S. environmental standards while consuming “huge amounts of water, gas, and chemicals” needed for the operation, which would create LCD panels bigger than any currently being produced, Hsieh wrote in a June blog post.
“Toxic byproducts from the manufacturing process, if not handled well, can have a catastrophic effect on the environment,” Hsieh said. “Asian panel makers have learned much on how to handle waste or recycling in the course of many years of operations, and it will be necessary to replicate and transfer such know-how to the US for any (plants) built here.”
Because even a speck of dust can interrupt an LCD circuit, the panels are manufactured in sanitized clean rooms. Glass is washed with “ultrapurified water” that is recycled for repeated use, said John West, interim director of the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State University.
The absence of specifics from Foxconn about its manufacturing process raises concerns the plant might not return as much water to Lake Michigan as it withdraws, said Jodi Habush Sinykin, an attorney and UW-Milwaukee professor of freshwater science who has served on several state commissions on water use.
With the Legislature poised to exempt the company from an environmental impact statement, Habush Sinykin said she hopes to recruit independent scientists to provide answers.
‘How much you are willing to pay’
Materials used to fabricate LCD screens are similar to those used by the U.S. semiconductor industry to coat computer chips with electrical circuits, West said.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lists a variety of toxic and hazardous materials associated with semiconductor manufacturing.
Technology — some of it costly — exists for removing contaminants from wastewater and for preventing hazardous dust and mist from endangering workers or escaping from smokestacks.
“The semiconductor industry has learned how to do it pretty safely,” said Andrew Maynard, an Arizona State University physics professor whose work with nanoparticles led to recognition as a leading expert on emerging risks from technology. “But there’s no such thing as complete safety.”
A company like Foxconn may need to build its own advanced system for removing metals from wastewater before it is piped to a municipal sewage plant unlikely to have such expensive equipment, Maynard said.
“It’s often a matter of how much you are willing to pay, and how much you think you can get away with,” Maynard said.
Environmentalists have expressed concern about reports of air and water pollution, and an explosion in one facility, linked to Foxconn and other LCD panel manufacturers in China.
China has well-known pollution problems, and some of them may be related to the practice of provincial governments investing money in new electronics plants and subsequently being reluctant to enforce environmental rules, Maynard said.
But it’s also true that when the central Chinese government becomes aware of gaps in enforcement it acts swiftly and decisively — with more unquestioned authority than the U.S. government, Maynard said.
“People may cut corners to increase profits, but then they have to face a heavy hammer coming down on them,” Maynard said.
In Wisconsin, the EPA has been urging state officials for a decade or more to remedy 75 deficiencies in clean water standards it enforces, and the state Legislative Audit Bureau last year found that the DNR seldom enforced its own standards for industrial water pollution.
In a “Social and Environmental Responsibility Report“ released in June, Foxconn said it was working to reduce waste and improve energy efficiency.
“In 2016, we made continuous investments in applying innovation to support the realization of our social and environmental responsibility goals and significant progress has been realized across our business and operations,” founder and CEO Terry Gou said in an introduction to the report. “Looking ahead, we will continue to fulfill our promise to safeguard the interests of all our stakeholders and to build a sustainable ecosystem for Foxconn’s development.”
In addition to the first LCD panel plant, Foxconn plans to build three factories to assemble the panels into finished products and it expects a glass manufacturer and other suppliers would also spring up.