DIGGING DEEPER: Foxconn environmental exemptions raise concerns - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

DIGGING DEEPER: Foxconn environmental exemptions raise concerns

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Madison (WQOW) -- Legislation that would waive a slew of state environmental regulations for a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer is causing concern on both the left and right.

Governor Scott Walker's Office said Monday that the state needs to manage regulations in a dynamic way in order to make sure it reaps the benefits of a $10 billion investment by Foxconn that will create up to 13,000 jobs.

But environmental groups are concerned the exemptions go too far and will set a bad precedent.

Under state law, companies building and running manufacturing facilities are subject to something called an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which lays out a project's estimated effect on the area's natural resources.

The bill introduced last week that outlines incentives and exemptions for Foxconn, doesn't require an EIS for the project.

Sarah Geers, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said that will make the entire process less transparent.

"Instead of being all there - laid out in a single document for the public to see and comment on - it's gonna be broken up into very technical and divided permitting programs," said Geers.

And not all of the usual permitting will be required either. The legislation exempts Foxconn from state permits that regulate the discharge of materials into wetlands and waterways.
"That means they wouldn't have to follow any of the requirements that might be included in a wetland permit that are meant to minimize potential negative impacts to the environment as a result of the wetland destruction," said Geers.

Rep. Adam Jarchow (R-Balsam Lake) believes Geers is overstating the importance of those permits.

"If you look at Wisconsin's regulations of isolated, non-federal wetlands, I would challenge you to find another state or two that's as restrictive or difficult as we are," said Rep. Jarchow.

If anything, Jarchow says, Foxconn shouldn't be special in receiving such exemptions - all businesses in the state should get them.

"That shows that we need these reforms and that we're only gonna do it for one company. We ought to do it statewide," said Rep. Jarchow.

That is the precedent Geers and other environmentalists are worried the Foxconn legislation will set.

MEA was part of a conference call with other state environmental groups Monday afternoon, to discuss presenting a unified opposition against the exemptions.

"Once you do this once for a big proposal like the Foxconn development, it just makes it easier to later excuse it for something smaller," said Geers.

The project will still be subject to federal regulations, but Geers contends wetlands that don't flow into navigable waterways may not fall under their jurisdiction.

"More isolated, smaller wetlands, it becomes a lot murkier whether those are protected by federal law," said Geers.

Officials in the Walker administration said there will still be enough regulations in place to protect the environment, and that such exceptions are hardly new.

"The bottom line is state and federal air, water quality, solid and hazardous waste standards are required to be met under this bill, and the exemptions are similar to other projects, like Lambeau Field, that provide a significant economic impact," wrote Tom Evenson, a spokesperson for Gov. Walker.

That Lambeau Field example refers to a project that allowed wetland fills without a permit for Cabela's, which built a store in the Titletown District near the stadium in 2012.

But Geers said comparing that project to Foxconn is an apples and oranges scenario.

"Mr. Evenson can list all other state air and water protection standards, but this is about a wholesale exemption of state wetland protection laws. It's an important distinction between the wetland exemption for a project near Lambeau that exempted three acres of wetland fill versus the major Foxconn project with an unknown number of wetland and waterway acres of unspecified quality, etc.," wrote Geers in an emailed response.

Part of the reason that wetland acreage is unknown, is due to the fact an exact site for the Foxconn property has yet to be identified.

But the entire area projected for the project will cover 1.5 square miles.

Geers said the wetland area for every 100 acres of land in Wisconsin averages out to be at least 20 percent.

A public hearing on the legislation is expected to be held at the State Capitol later this week.

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