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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

As Foxconn Bill Moves Through Legislature, Environmental Impact Debate Continues

Susan Bence
Cathy Stepp at Wednesday's Natural Resources Board meeting in Milwaukee.

As Gov. Walker pushes for swift approval of the $3 billion Foxconn incentives package, Wednesday Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said his chamber is taking its time to go through it. Meanwhile, DNR secretary Cathy Stepp was in Milwaukee to promote the bill.

At the monthly meeting of the state's Natural Resources Board, Stepp wanted the board to know her agency is ready to work with Taiwanese company and that she’s excited about it.

She said the incentives package working its way through the legislature will help the DNR streamline the job-creating project’s permitting process. “The bill makes exceptions in environmental policy for Foxconn. For instance, the manufacturer would not have to complete a comprehensive report on possible environmental impacts of building and operating the factory."

Foxconn also would be waived from state wetland regulations. The measures alarm environmentalists.

But with her signature bravado, Stepp set out to dispel what she says is misinformation surrounding the Foxconn bill. “There are no environmental standards that are being rolled back. There are some duplicative where we do some things and the federal government does some things. We’re of course going to be evaluating environmental impacts throughout each individual permit that might be required.”

Stepp said the federal government serves as a sort of safety net. And when it comes to wetland protection, she said, the Army Corps will continue to play a role. “Whether there’s federal or state wetlands involved, we will be there to make sure the proper mitigation standards are met. Army Corps of Engineers would have a lot of oversight in this project and they would be working through their federal process – anything in the proposed legislation does not affect that."

Stepp touted a measure found in the bill that requires Foxconn to create two acres of wetland for every one acre it damages.

Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio
Melissa Scanlan is a Vermont Law School Professor. She founded Midwest Environmental Advocates in 1999.

Vermont Law School professor Melissa Scanlan says beyond that part of the bill, she sees only problems.

Scanlan is not convinced the Army Corps of Engineers will prevent wetlands from being destroyed.

She says a lot about the bill's impact is unclear, since Foxconn has not announced just where it plans to build the plant.  

“Unless there are wetlands on site that are clearly within federal definition of waters of the US. So again, we don’t know the site, so we don’t know if they are clearly federally protected wetlands. There are many wetlands that fall outside the definition,” she says.

Scanlan adds that at a national level, there's been a push to put power over policy back in the hands of states. She fears an environmental safety net - to keep an eye on long-term impacts - could disappear.

"The legislative packet includes broad exemptions to state environmental protection laws including the public's right to clean and reliable water."

And she has another fundamental concern, Scanlan believes the Foxconn legislation runs counter to the state constitution. “The public has the right to use the state’s public waters and the legislature as the trustee has carried out its duty to the public by creating water laws. To exempt a single company from those water laws raises constitutional issues that could make those exemptions subject to challenge in court."

She and others concerned about the environment are urging lawmakers to slow the bill's progress through the Legislature.

Their concerns may fall on deaf ears. The bill appears to be well on its way to an Assembly vote.

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