Public Hearing Wednesday on Proposal to Divert Lake Michigan Water For Foxconn Plant

Mar 6, 2018

The Taiwanese-owned LCD manufacturing facility will require loads of water for its production process. The Racine Water Utility wants to extend service to provide that water.

Foxconn's massive campus will be located where I-94 and Highway 11 intersect in Mount Pleasant.

The village straddles two huge water basins, which makes Racine’s request to pump seven million gallons of water a day into Mount Pleasant thorny. In order to deliver water to Foxconn, the water utility would pipe Lake Michigan water from the Great Lakes basin across Racine County, into the Mississippi River basin that eventually drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

Because part of Mount Pleasant lies in the Mississippi River basin, the diversion falls under Great Lakes Compact rules. The agreement, enacted in 2008, requires all eight Great Lakes states to collectively manage the huge freshwater resource.  The Compact also bans water being diverted or "piped" outside the basin - with a few exceptions.

Racine's requested diversion falls under that umbrella. In this case, Gov. Walker can decide whether to approve the diversion or not. 

Ezra Meyer with Clean Wisconsin says you need only look at Wisconsin state statutes to realize Racine’s request deviates from the Great Lakes Compact.

Meyer says water diverted to a straddling community must be used “solely for public water supply purposes," which is defined as “group of largely residential customers."

And, although industrial, commercial and other institutional customers are allowed in the service area mix, Meyer says, “There are no residential uses whatsoever in the zone the water would be diverted to. It’s entirely industrial and commercial use – Foxconn and some spinoffs. That feels like a private use, much more than a public water supply user purpose."

"The authors of the Compact are telling me that none of them envisioned a 13,000 employee factory landing on top of the Great Lakes basin and challenging the compact language in unanticipated ways." - Peter Annin

Peter Annin points to another wrinkle in Foxconn's quest for water -- the proposed diversion tests the Great Lakes Compact's water consumption guidelines.

Annin is a compact expert.  He authored The Great Lakes Water Wars, closely followed the Waukesha’s diversion application, and is keeping his eye on how Foxconn fits into the picture.

"[Waukesha] agreed to return 100% of the water (to the Great Lakes basin), even though the Compact didn't require it," Annin explains. "Well, Foxconn is going to be consuming about 40% of its water diversion, so I've been asking those compact authors, 'What is the allowance for consumptive use?'... And, they have kind of given me doe-eyed looks because this is sort of an unanticipated situation."

And, Annin believes Foxconn may actually be more vulnerable to litigation than the Waukesha water deal. He says some authors of the Great Lakes Compact disagree with others about what the straddling community water diversion language means and how much water returned to the Great Lakes basin is enough.

"Some tell me a factory like this on the edge of the (Great Lakes) basin was not intended at all, and others are telling me it is just fine," Annin explains. "So when you have the authors of a legal document disagreeing about what it means - that is just ripe for litigation. The question is, is there anyone who is upset enough about Foxconn and has the resources to challenge the facility in court."

Just north of downtown, the Racine Water Utility pumps in Lake Michigan water, treats and sends it off to customers through a series of mains and service pipes. South of downtown, other pipes return waste water to Racine’s treatment plant.
Credit Susan Bence

Keith Haas, who manages Racine’s water system, is confident Lake Michigan will not suffer by adding Foxconn to Racine Water Utility's customer base.

On the supply side, he says the utility could deliver up to 60 million gallons a day. Right now, the system doles out only a third of that on its busiest water-use day.

If Racine supplies Foxconn with water, it will join more than three dozen industrial customers.

Haas says each is unique – one’s waste water might be loaded with zinc, another with high levels of copper - and each industry must meet unique regulations. “There’s a parameter in our local ordinances and in state statutes and in federal law that says what they have to get it down to before they can discharge it to the sewer system."

As waste water enters the plant, it moves through an intricate system, including clarification ponds and ultraviolet disinfection (pictured). Nearly 24 hours later, the treated water, called effluent, cascades back into Lake Michigan.
Credit Susan Bence

The industries, he says, must treat their waste water to meet standards before sending it to the city's treatment plant. “We sample them periodically, usually twice a year. Johnsons Wax every day, probably Foxconn every day and then we analyze them to make sure they’re meeting their standard."

On one hand, Haas says Foxconn will be treated like any other industrial customer. But he acknowledges the Taiwanese manufacturing giant represents a new breed of manufacturer. “Because it’s the only glass plant of its kind in this country, we don’t have a rule specifically for that, but we have one for electroplating and electrical manufacturing and somewhere in between they’ll use those standards to apply to Foxconn."

Biologist Tim Ehlinger worries about the environmental uncertainties presented by Foxconn’s manufacturing methods. “Because you have all kinds plasticizers, you have all kinds of solvents, you have all kinds of surfactants..., many of these are always developing because in order to stay up to date with technology, the detergents and process you’re using are continually evolving and adapting," he explains.

Ehlinger says state and federal regulations may not keep up with contaminants that aren’t fully understood or regulated yet.

Such concerns could spill over at Wednesday evening’s hearing, as the Foxconn operation faces public scrutiny of its first environmental hurdle.

READ: Foxconn & Water Use: Voices of Concern Dominate Public Hearing

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