Some Think What He Has in Mind is Transforming (eliminating) Wisconsin’s Environmental Regulations
As you may know, Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin has signed an incentives agreement with Foxconn, the giant Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, to build a liquid crystal display (LCD) manufacturing plant to southeast Wisconsin’s Racine and Kenosha Counties.
Governor Walker’s incentives package has now become Assembly Bill 1. AB 1 establishes an Electronics and Information Technology Manufacturing Zone and exempts any new manufacturing facility located within that zone from all state wetland and waterway permit requirements.
For example, as we reported in an earlier post, AB1 would permit Foxconn to alter the direction of streams, build man-made bodies of water that connect with natural waterways, and dredge, fill, and discharge into wetlands with authorization from the State Department of Natural Resources (Wisconsin State Journal July 29, 2017.). This, despite the fact that it is unreasonable to exempt a project this size from an environmental impact statement and accepted environmental standards.
Legislation Moving Quickly
Last week the Wisconsin Assembly held hearings on AB1. And on Thursday (August 17) the Assembly voted to approve the legislative package and sent it on to the Wisconsin Senate. The senate is also expected to pass the measure despite stiff opposition from the public, some lawmakers, and concerns about the economic costs (tax breaks for Foxconn) and potential environmental impacts (no environmental impact statement would be required).
Proponents of the legislation argue that the economic incentives and relaxation (read: abandonment) of environmental regulations are necessary to land this once-in-a-lifetime job-creating deal.
Until now, objections to, and questions about, the Foxconn deal have centered on the details of the economic package. But those concerns, though valid, miss the real long-term impact, which, as the Wisconsin Wetlands Association points out, is a precedent-setting rollback of environmental safeguards. And, by misdirecting the discussion, and hoping the public will focus exclusively on the financial giveaway, Walker and partners hope we will not notice the larger trick they are pulling—rolling back hard earned, fair, and common sense environmental standards.
According to a WWA analysis of AB1:
“The wetland impacts from the project may or may not be substantial. We won’t know until Foxconn selects a site. We do know that the changes to wetland law enacted in 2012 provide more than enough flexibility to approve permits to construct a facility like Foxconn. The proposed exemptions are unnecessary in an altered landscape like Southeast Wisconsin.”
As the WWA points out, because under wetland law enacted in 2012 “. . There is more than enough flexibility to approve permits to construct a facility like Foxconn. The proposed exemptions are unnecessary in an altered landscape like Southeast Wisconsin” (WWA, 2017)
Read the full WWA statement on Foxconn deal: https://wisconsinwetlands.org/updates/wisconsin-wetlands-associations-statement-on-the-foxconn-bill/
What Natural Features Are at Stake?
True, southeast Wisconsin, one of the state’s most populous and saturated with industry and commerce, is an altered landscape. But, there are still many valuable environmental features in Kenosha and Racine Counties, including several State Natural Areas (SNAs).
State Natural Areas “harbor natural features essentially unaltered by human-caused disturbances or that have substantially recovered from disturbance over time. The finest of these sites are considered for establishment as State Natural Areas (WIDNR 2005).
The People of Wisconsin own and manage eight designated state natural areas in southeast Wisconsin: three in Racine County and five in Kenosha
In addition, there are several wetlands that have such ecological significance that the Wisconsin Wetlands Association has designated them Wetland Gems. There are only 100 such wetland gems in the entire state, four of which are found in Racine and Kenosha Counties.
There is some overlap between SNAs and Wetland Gems. Chiwaukee Prairie, and Renak-Polak Maple Beech Woods have the added significance and ecological importance of being designated as both SNAs and Wetland Gems.
State Assault on Environmental Protections
These, and other State Natural Areas and Wetland Gems could be impacted either directly or indirectly by the activities of the Foxconn plant construction and operation, but we don’t know. We don’t know because the prospective site has not been revealed. However, the broader point, as made eloquently and forcefully by the Wisconsin Wetlands Association is that what is at stake is precedent. If Foxconn is allowed to get away scot free with environmental degradation then there will no stopping the next company that comes calling on Gov. Walker and the Wisconsin state legislature. If AB1 passes in its current form then the state will have a playbook by which to review and approve all future construction projects—large or small–in the state.
“Make no mistake…this is an attack on Wisconsin’s protections for isolated wetlands and an attack on Wisconsin’s long-standing tradition of protecting public waters for public benefit. From what we see in the news, it is also a calculated, incremental step in a broader campaign to eliminate Wisconsin’s wetland regulatory program all together.” (WWA, 2017).
Federal Assault Also Likely in One-Two Punch
According to a New York Times report (NYT 08.16.17 by Lisa Friedman) Donald Trump announced on Tuesday (08.15.17) “that he had signed a sweeping executive order to eliminate and streamline some permitting regulations and to speed construction of roads, bridges, and pipelines.”
The Trump federal rollback combined with Walker’s desire to revoke Wisconsin’s environmental protections, the state’s natural resources would be defenseless against any and all who desired to exploit them.
What You Can Do
If you live in Wisconsin, and oppose this deal, contact your state representative and senator and let them know your opinion. Then try to persuade them to consider alternative approaches to achieve the desired sustainable economic growth within a planning framework that recognizes the need to protect wetlands, first by avoid building in them, secondly by minimizing impacts to them, and thirdly by attempting mitigating damages.