Proposed Law Loosens Wisconsin Environmental Rules To Ease Foxconn Project

Aug 1, 2017

Governor Scott Walker is floating a bill crafted to speed up the construction of Foxconn's facility in Wisconsin. Critics say the proposal puts environmental protections in a tailspin.

Walker unveiled the plan last week, one day after signing a memorandum of understanding with Foxconn at the Milwaukee Art Museum, where the governor said Wisconsin will do what it takes to make the plans come to fruition.

“We’re ready, we’ve got our act together. And we showed that a while back to all of you in the legislature, when we did the arena, we showed we can set aside partisanship and just get things done, because when it matters, we are doers here in Wisconsin – we do the right thing. We get things done,” Walker said.

Walker’s 32-page plan would ease the way for the plant, expected to be built in southeastern Wisconsin, by creating what is called an electronics and information technology manufacturing zone.

MORE INFO: READ ALL OF WUWM'S FOXCONN STORIES HERE

Sarah Geers with Midwest Environmental Advocates says she's worried about provisions in the bill. She says one would exempt Foxconn for impacts to waterways and wetlands.

“(The bill) creates blanket exemptions to our most basic environmental protections without even knowing full extend of harm, because we don’t know where Foxconn will happen. So we don’t know which wetlands and waterways will be impacted,” Geers says.

Under current law, if someone wants to change the course of a stream or straighten it, the DNR has to approve it. The governor’s bill eliminates that step for Foxconn.

An Environmental Impact Statement, or EIS, might be foreign to many of us, but people like Jon Drewsen with Clean Wisconsin count on big projects, such as the one Foxconn is proposing, being closely scrutinized.

“That’s really where we find out what’s at stake for our air and water and the public gets a sense as to how they’re water, air and land resources are going to affected,” Drewsen says.

The bill would free Foxconn of the Environmental Impact Statement process.

“Anytime we’re rolling back environmental protection to encourage business in Wisconsin, that’s a red flag,” Drewsen says.

With the legislation seemingly on a fast track, both Drewsen and Sarah Geers worry that the public won't have a chance to digest and react to the bill.

But Republican state Rep. Jim Steineke downplays such concerns. “Everybody wants to have clean air and water and keep those things protected, but I think there’s a way to do that without dramatically change the way the bill as it is,” he says.

Steineke says interested citizens will be able to participate in a public hearing. He expects the Assembly’s jobs and economy committee to hold the forum.

“There are some environmental components, but this is not a natural resources bill, it’s an business development bill, an economic development bill. The majority of it encompass the incentives, the credits, the structure for those. The environmental components are just a piece of it,” Steineke says.

If the legislature greenlights the bill, it won’t be the first time a large company has held sway at the state capitol.

In 2013, lawmakers passed a controversial bill meant to streamline the development of Gogebic Taconite's proposed open-pit iron mine in far northern Wisconsin. The company ultimately dropped its plans.