Foxconn deal raises environmental concerns

One critic is worried the environmental rollbacks outlined in the Foxconn bill could set a precedent for other business dealings in the state going forward.

But a Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce representative said the changes proposed in the Foxconn legislation are “temporary and moving in one area of the state,” adding it’s too soon to tell whether others across Wisconsin would vie for similar regulatory changes because of the bill.

The bill would exempt the Taiwanese company from needing an environmental impact statement before the project gets underway, as well as allow Foxconn to discharge dredged or fill materials in wetlands without a state permit, among other things.

Clean Wisconsin spokesman John Adams said those changes set a “precedent that doesn’t take” the state’s natural resources into account.

“We have protections in place for our water and air for a good reason and we need to take ample consideration and review of our natural resources when we make these plans,” he said.

But Lucas Vebber, WMC director of environmental and energy policy, said a number of questions remain, including which site will be chosen for the plant.

Still, Vebber said the Foxconn project “can show the way forward” on potential regulatory changes, although he added it’s “too early to tell if every new tool in this legislation could be utilized” for companies in the future. He added his organization isn’t pushing for any environmental regulations changes based on the language in the bill.

And overall, he said many of the bill components related to the environment are “pretty common sense,” including language surrounding state wetland discharge permitting, which he says just repeals “an unnecessary state specific layer of regulatory permitting” because the federal wetland approval process would still apply.

Adams, though, said the bill could “have the potential to really tie the hands of the DNR.” And he added that businesses currently operating in the state do so within the existing parameters to protect Wisconsin’s water and air every day.

“Any time we’re rolling back environmental protections to encourage business in Wisconsin, that’s a red flag,” he said.

But DNR spokesman Jim Dick said the bill’s provisions, including one exempting Foxconn from an environmental impact statement, wouldn’t affect how the department does its job or takes environmental impacts into consideration when reviewing permit applications. He said that specific language would help Foxconn skip to the permit application review process without taking months or a year to go through the environmental impact statement phase.

“Not requiring an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) is about streamlining the process, not changing or being lax on environmental requirements,” he said. “Under current law, the EIS has no regulatory consequence.”

On the wetland requirements, Dick said because the exact location of the facility is unknown, the DNR isn’t certain that wetlands “will be involved or the quality of those wetlands.”

–By Briana Reilly