The approval of a new factory just outside the Great Lakes Basin could mark the beginning of a manufacturing revitalization that relies on draining millions of gallons of water from the lakes.
It’s what Wisconsin’s government hopes for — and environmentalists fear.
If given the go-ahead by Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, electronics manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group, which is based in Taiwan, would make liquid crystal displays, more commonly known as LCDs, in a factory just outside Racine.
Wisconsin courted Foxconn hard. The state offered $3 billion in incentives and exempted the plant from the state’s wetlands regulations and an environmental impact review. In luring Foxconn, Wisconsin beat out many of its Great Lakes neighbors — Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania also vied for the plant.
The company has pledged to hire 3,000 people in GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan’s district in a largely rural part of the state with a struggling economy. But the company needs more than just a wealth of manufacturing workers. Making LCD panels also requires large volumes of clean water: The plant is seeking approval through Racine’s water utility to drain 7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan.
But other Great Lakes states are questioning the deal’s legality, and some environmentalists say it could create a slippery slope that will allow other outside interests to tap into lakes.
Environmentalists object to Wisconsin leaders allowing Foxconn to skirt some regulations, and they worry Racine’s wastewater treatment center won’t be able to treat all the pollution from the plant before releasing the water back into Lake Michigan.
Perhaps the biggest question, however, is whether the deal violates the Great Lakes Compact, a 2008 deal signed by the eight Great Lakes states and whose governing body includes Ontario and Quebec. The agreement aims to keep Great Lakes water from being diverted to areas far beyond the Great Lakes Basin, but it also requires that any water that is diverted be used to serve mainly the public, not industry.
“There had been musings in years past done by water-thirsty states out West that the way to solve the water problem is to build pipelines to Lake Superior,” said Bill Davis, executive director of the Wisconsin chapter of the Sierra Club, which is opposed to the Foxconn project. “If you undermine the compact, you potentially lose the ability to prevent things like that from happening.”
The Foxconn plant is set to be built in Mount Pleasant near Racine, not far from the Great Lakes Basin. Racine is requesting 7 million gallons of lake water a day, of which 6 million would go to the plant and 1 million would go to other commercial and industrial users. That’s not enough water to trigger a review by the rest of the Great Lakes states in the compact, under which one state’s “nay” would be enough to veto the project.
Instead, it’s up to Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources to make sure the proposal meets the compact’s standards when it comes to diverting water. The agency hopes to decide on the project by the end of May.
Officials from New York and Illinois, two Great Lakes states that did not compete for the plant, questioned aspects of the deal during the proposal’s comment period, which concluded earlier this month.
A letter from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation quoted the compact’s requirement that water diverted to nearby communities largely serve residential customers.
“Here, it is unclear that the proposed diversion is largely for residential customers,” the letter said. “The water is intended to facilitate the construction and operation of the future industrial site.”
New York also questioned whether Wisconsin could unilaterally approve the deal, saying the compact’s general prohibition of new diversions “favors and potentially mandates” review by the other states bordering the lakes.
A letter from the Illinois Attorney General’s Office said the utilities involved haven’t made clear how they would treat wastewater from the Foxconn plant before ultimately releasing it back into the lake. They argue that Racine should not be able to exceed the amounts defined in its current permit for returning wastewater to the lake.
Gov. Scott Walker’s office referred questions about whether the Foxconn project comports with the Great Lakes Compact to the state environmental agency. A spokesman for the agency would not comment on the Foxconn project while its regulatory review is underway.
Keith Haas, general manager of Racine’s water utility, said the Foxconn project pales in comparison to the more than 700 million gallons of Lake Michigan water that Chicago uses every day. He said much of the area’s current population was drawn there to work at factories that have since closed.
“Because of the industry decline of last 20, 30 years, we have lots of capacity to meet the demands of future development,” he said.