, , , , , ,

State Officials Set To Hear From Public On Foxconn Bid To Tap Lake Michigan Water

Environmental Groups Plan To Raise Concerns, Questions At DNR Hearing

Chuck Quirmbach/WPR

Foxconn Technology Group is looking to divert millions of gallons of Lake Michigan water every day for use at the massive manufacturing facility it plans to build in Racine County.

As part of the approval process, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will hold its only public hearing on the proposal Wednesday night in Sturtevant before making an official recommendation.

Survey markers at the planned Foxconn factory site in Racine County. Chuck Quirmbach/WPR

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

At full capacity, officials say the Foxconn plant could employ up to 13,000 workers making LCD panels for computer screens, medical equipment and other devices.

Gov. Scott Walker, one of the project’s most prominent and vocal supporters, put those job figures in perspective at an event last week in Milwaukee, saying, “13,000 people is bigger than 96 percent of all the municipalities in all the state of Wisconsin … That’s like dropping a whole city in the state of Wisconsin!”

But a factory the size of a small city needs a lot of water in the production process — about 7 million gallons a day — which Foxconn proposes getting from the Racine Water Utility.

The utility already treats water piped in from Lake Michigan and supplies both Racine and some surrounding communities, including the Village of Mount Pleasant, where Foxconn will be based.

But because part of the Foxconn plant would be in a portion of Mount Pleasant that’s outside the Great Lakes Basin, rules of the 2008 Great Lakes Compact kick in. Under that international agreement between Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces, the home state, in this case, Wisconsin, has to approve transfers of lake water to communities that straddle the edge of the watershed.

The Racine Water Utility complex along Lake Michigan. Chuck Quirmbach/WPR

Environmentalists question the plan on several fronts.

Attorney Jodi Habush Sinykin with Midwest Environmental Advocates contends the proposed diversion would primarily benefit one company and argues the multi-state agreement narrowly limits diversions to public, largely residential purposes.

“It’s another wrinkle in this particular end run,” Habush Sinykin said. “And that’s what we’re seeing this as, an end run around the compact.”

Walker points to a long history of the private sector in Racine using Lake Michigan water and says a lot more used to be consumed.

“In fact, there’s been a 47-percent reduction for the water utility sales to industrial customers. Largely because in Racine, sadly, in the last 20 years, we’ve seen a major reduction in manufacturing and industrial jobs,” he said.

Walker contends Foxconn will bring some of the jobs back, without harming lake water levels.

But environmentalists say more than a third of the 7 million gallons of water Foxconn would take in every day would never make it back to the lake. It would evaporate or disappear in production through what’s called consumptive use.

Ezra Meyer, of Clean Wisconsin, is also concerned about lake water quality.

Foxconn plans to pipe its industrial sewage to Racine’s wastewater treatment plant. Meyer wonders if Racine could properly treat the chemicals before discharging to Lake Michigan, or if Foxconn can do so earlier in the process.

“Is Foxconn going to do things up at the plant to take care of the chemical constituents that would be in there that would be of concern to the lake? We’ve looked around the world at Foxconn’s other manufacturing facilities that are similar to the one they’re proposing here, and there are a lot of nasty chemicals in there. Toxic chemicals of concern for ecology and human health,” Meyer told WPR.

For local business advocates like the Racine County Economic Development Corp.’s Jenny Trick, contamination concerns seem less dire. Trick says she hopes Foxconn gets the clean water it needs and she’s confident the local drinking water and wastewater treatment plants would protect Lake Michigan.

“There’s always the concern that people are good stewards. But I’m thankful we have some very good partners that have some very high success rates to make sure this natural resource is protected,” Trick said.

The DNR is expected to make its recommendation on the Great Lakes water diversion request this spring.