The Impact a Wisconsin LCD Plant May Have on the Great Lakes Is Not Crystal Clear

The state is allowing Foxconn to take water from Lake Michigan, but what might the company leave behind?

Downtown Racine, Wisconsin

Credit: Alert Five Productions/Shutterstock

When Foxconn, a Taiwan-based company, decided to be the first ever to manufacture LCD screens in the United States, it did not want for suitors. Michigan and North Carolina offered millions of dollars in incentives while Wisconsin state legislators offered $3 billion in tax credits, waived environmental regulations, and even changed the state’s wetland laws. Several other states also pined for the 13,000 jobs the company would bring, but in the end, Wisconsin held the last rose.

Now Foxconn proposes building a 20-million-square-foot plant and various other buildings on more than 1,198 acres of wetlands in Mount Pleasant, a suburb of Racine, in southeastern Wisconsin. And the state's Department of Natural Resources just gave the company the OK to withdraw up to 7 million gallons of water from Lake Michigan every day and return 4.3 million through Racine’s wastewater treatment plant. We don’t know exactly what pollutants may come from the LCD plant, but we do know that the project could forever change who is allowed to consume large amounts of Great Lakes water.

A decade ago, the governors of the eight states surrounding the lakes signed the Great Lakes Compact, an agreement that regulates water use and diversions from the basin. According to the compact, only communities bordering the lakes can use Great Lakes water. Because part of Mount Pleasant lies outside the basin, Racine, which is located on the shores of Lake Michigan, would have to pipe water to the Foxconn plant.

Typically, all eight governors must approve diversions of five million gallons a day or more. But since Foxconn plans to return 60 percent of its withdrawal, it needed only Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s authorization. The project's approval has now set a worrisome precedent, says Jimmy Parra, an attorney with Midwest Environmental Advocates. Any industrial or commercial facility might now “set up shop right outside the basin and use Great Lakes water,” he says.

Governor Scott Walker and Foxconn chairman Terry Gou signed an agreement in November 2017 that grants $3 billion in tax incentives for building an LCD plant in southeastern Wisconsin.
Credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty

The compact states that any diverted water must be for residential use only, as it was for Waukesha, Wisconsin, a community granted a diversion in 2016 after much debate and litigation. To some of the compact’s authors, its intent is clear: “The whole, real point of the compact is to keep Great Lakes water in the Great Lakes,” says Cheryl Nenn of Milwaukee Riverkeeper. After all, only 1 percent of the water in the lakes is renewable each year, she says.

Riverkeeper isn’t the only environmental group concerned about the diversion. At a public hearing last month, Midwest Environmental Advocates and NRDC also spoke out against the proposal. “Our concern with the compact is that it will have this drip, drip, drip effect,” says Karen Hobbs, senior director of Midwest advocacy for NRDC. “If people don’t see the compact as an effective tool to manage Great Lakes waters, we’re going to see less and less attempt to comply.”

In addition to quantity, the quality of Great Lakes water is also at stake. Foxconn has yet to disclose what toxins might be released as it manufactures screens for phones and TVs. Most of the company’s current plants are spread across China, where disclosure of potential contaminants is not required.

Near Foxconn manufacturing plants in China, rivers are very polluted, says Peter Adriaens, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Michigan. Although we can’t be sure that the LCD facilities are the culprit, the correlation is strong, he says.

Foxconn will have to ensure that its wastewater meets certain standards before sending it to Racine’s treatment plant. But the plant could present new challenges to treatment. No other glass screen manufacturing plants exist in the United States, and because the process uses solvents and plasticizers not seen in other U.S. industries, the substances in the wastewater may not be regulated yet.

The company applied for its first air emissions permit in March, listing particulate matter, nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and VOCs as some of the pollutants the plant would release into the atmosphere. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources held a public meeting at the beginning of this month on the permit application (the public comment period ended in mid-April). But the state has already let the facility bypass environmental review and given Foxconn several environmental exemptions—including allowing the company to fill wetlands, change or straighten the course of a stream, and build on a lake or streambed without a permit. This means opportunities for public input and scientific research have been limited.

Many environmental advocates agree that the jobs Foxconn could provide are important, especially when one considers manufacturing’s downturn in the region. But jeopardizing the state’s water, land, and air may not be worth it. Hobbs sees red flags in the fact that Wisconsin has made such sweeping exemptions for industry, has offered little transparency, and is allowing barely any public input. Now that Walker has signed off on the plant, it could begin operating as early as 2019, whether Lake Michigan is in danger or not.

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