Can industry, environment grow simultaneously with Foxconn?
Former Racine mayor concerned about environmental regulation waivers for tech giant in bill

By Hannah Weikel - Freeman Staff

August 8, 2017

RACINE - After leaving behind efforts to appeal and possibly litigate Waukesha's plan to draw millions of gallons of Lake Michigan water each day, the group representing mayors in the Great Lakes region is instead setting its sights on the Foxconn deal, with Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to waive some environmental protections - which the group's leader says could have a significant impact on water quality.

The proposal, special session Assembly Bill 1, put forth by Gov. Scott Walker would allow electronics manufacturer Foxconn to discharge dredged materials during construction, fill wetlands, change the course of streams, build artificial bodies of water that connect with natural waterways and build on a riverbed or lakebed - all without permits in order to sweeten the deal between Wisconsin and Foxconn.

John Dickert, former mayor of Racine - one of the areas that could be selected for the 20 million square-foot Foxconn campus - said he is watching the issue closely, which threatens disaster, he added, if elected officials choose to sacrifice the water quality of Lake Michigan to get the maker of liquid crystal display - LCD - screens to the state. Dickert resigned from city government last month and moved to the helm of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a consortium of hundreds of mayors from across the Great Lakes region in the U.S. and Canada that is tenacious about protecting the Great Lakes.

Dickert said he thinks Foxconn's eagerness to come to the region is the start of a major manufacturer influx, all wanting to set up operations at the foot of the Great Lakes and use the fresh water. He said the Foxconn bill could spell doom for Great Lakes water in the future.

"To start a trend saying we will destroy the environment to get a company to build here is a horrible precedent to set," Dickert said. "It's not what people in Wisconsin want either."

Dickert said mayors around the Great Lakes watershed have been waiting for mega manufacturers to "switch back to the U.S.," if given the opportunity to tap into the massive fresh water source.

The key, he said, is to remember that there can be water quality and economic development at the same time if elected officials decide to open up the process to more stakeholders - like businesses, scientists, educators and surrounding communities.

"It's only when you hide something in the cover of darkness that there are problems," he said. "We are still waiting for the details of this to emerge, but we see this being a trend in the future and don't want that to mean the degradation of our Great Lakes."

Carol Groe, president of Waukesha County Environmental Action League, WEAL, said she worries the rollback of environmental protections with the Foxconn bill could mean those regulations that she and other environmentalists fought for are gone for good, everywhere in the state.

She, like Dickert, believes jobs coming to the southeastern part of the state are great for economic development, and hopes lawmakers are wise enough to ensure protections remain for public health, clean drinking water and lakes and rivers.

Groe said she hasn't brought the issue up before the whole league, but expects to at a meeting coming up this month.

"I know what they are proposing - building liquid crystal displays - can produce a lot of toxins; it's a pretty dirty process," she said. "Of course we're concerned about something like this and its affect on the state."

The Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters is circulating a letter that people can send to their local legislators asking them to pledge to "reject anti-conservation measures in the Foxconn bill," which needlessly endangers Wisconsin's natural resources, according to their website. 

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources spokesman James Dick told the Associated Press last week that since Foxconn hasn't selected a site yet, no one knows if any wetlands will be affected.

 The company would still have to obtain state and federal air, water quality and waste permits, Dick added. Those applications require a public comment period so people would still be able to keep abreast of developments, he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.