Wisconsin factory sparks concern for Great Lakes water use

Mar 7, 2018
Originally published on March 7, 2018 9:51 am

Foxconn Technology's plans for a Wisconsin factory were announced last summer with great fanfare. President Donald Trump led a White House event highlighting the factory that Foxconn says could eventually employ 13,000 people.

Dozens of people gathered on the 32nd floor of a skyscraper to hear that the Taiwan-based company would develop a North American headquarters downtown. Foxconn's Louis Woo told the crowd that it would be a center for innovation and development -- and a magnet to attract younger workers.

"We want to take advantage of the youthfulness, the vibrant, and also ... a new concept called 'easy living' in Wisconsin," he said.

Foxconn's headquarters plan doesn't seem controversial. It's a different story at the plant site to the south, where the company will make liquid crystal display screens for computers, medical devices and other products.

Construction crews are already laying water pipe in the Village of Mount Pleasant, about five miles from Lake Michigan.

Area resident Kelly Gallaher says this is just the beginning of disruption. She worries about increased traffic, losing hundreds of acres of farmland and stormwater runoff.

"You have all of these fields, that when it rains or when it snows, it absorbs the water," she said. "We are now going to have parking lots and rooftops on big buildings. Where's that water going to go?

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says there are safeguards. All project activities will have to comply with state and federal storm water and floodplain standards.

Dozens of landowners who are being asked to sell to Foxconn or Mount Pleasant have hired lawyers. Thomas Devine says he and his clients realize that Foxconn would create thousands of jobs.

"I certainly understand the greater good argument," he said. "Unfortunately, the grist for that mill are the people that have to give up their homes."

Along Lake Michigan's shoreline, a potentially broader controversy is bubbling.

Racine wants to send seven million gallons of lake water to the Foxconn property each day. State approval is needed under the 2008 Great Lakes Compact, because part of the plant would lie outside the Great Lakes basin.

Jenny Trick, a local economic development official, is confident drinking water and wastewater treatment plants would protect Lake Michigan.

"There's always the concern that people are good stewards," she said. "But I'm thankful we have some very good partners that have some very high success rates to make sure this natural resource is protected."

Still, critics note that some safeguards aren’t available. Foxconn got an exemption from filing a state environmental impact statement.

Environmental attorneys also object to the water diversion plan.

Jodi Habush Sinykin of Midwest Environmental Advocates contends that Racine shouldn't be able to supply Lake Michigan water for the primary benefit of a single private company. She says the Great Lakes Compact, a multi-state agreement that governs water usage, limits withdrawals to public purposes, largely residential.

"It's another wrinkle in this particular end run," she said. "And that's what we're seeing this as, an end run around the Compact."

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