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Foxconn plant's watershed impacts concern Illinois towns; project supporters say don't worry

Illinois Watchdog.Org

Friday, July 6, 2018  |  Article  |  By Andrew Burger

Environment (41) , Rivers (23)
With flooding along the Des Plaines River watershed already a concern for a number of suburban Chicago communities, Foxconn's $10 billion LCD display panel manufacturing plant being built across the border in Racine County, Wis., is raising alarm bells.

The Taiwanese manufacturer of TV screens and computer monitors for companies such as Apple plans to bring as many as 13,000 well-paying manufacturing jobs to the area. To lure Foxconn, the state of Wisconsin offered more than $3 billion in tax incentives and waived some environmental regulations.

It's the latter concession that has Illinois communities such as Gurnee concerned about the impact on the watershed, but project supporters say they shouldn't be.

Foxconn is meeting, or exceeding, all federal and state environmental rules and regulations, according to Lucas Vebber, general counsel and director of environmental and energy policy at the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce industry association, which played an integral part in Foxconn project negotiations.

“At every step of the way, Foxconn has shown that it is willing to invest in the latest, state-of-the-art environmental technologies and mitigate the environmental impacts of building and operating the plant,” Vebber told Watchdog.

President Donald Trump, Gov. Scott Walker and other officials officially broke ground last week at the site in the Racine County town of Mount Pleasant, about 20 miles north of the Illinois border. The site was chosen in part because of its proximity to Chicago and its large workforce. Some state environmental impact assessment requirements were waived, and U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt agreed to reduce federal air pollution and environmental standards.

The Des Plaines River watershed spans some 1,455 square miles, from southeastern Wisconsin through northeastern Illinois. Located alongside the riverbank not far from the Illinois border, leaders of the village of Gurnee, among others, are concerned about the impacts construction of the Foxconn manufacturing facility will have on the Des Plaines River water levels and flooding.

Gurnee Village Council officials are not aware of any studies or scientific research regarding the issues. They also don't know of any associated environmental impact assessments, Gurnee Mayor Krysti Kovarik said.

"A project of this size and significance certainly would be a candidate for a studied approach to possible environmental consequences," Kovarik told Watchdog.org. “We would like to know if there are any plans and what they are to mitigate and compensate for the storm water run-off from the 2,900 acre project that sits at the headwaters of the Des Plaines River. From experience, we anticipate that replacing 2,900 acres of farmland with structures and impervious surface will have a negative impact along the Des Plaines River and the surrounding floodways during periods of heavy rain."

The Gurnee Village Council unanimously voted to pass a resolution urging Wisconsin to ensure that Foxconn complies with all environmental impact assessment and reporting requirements. The neighboring Lake County Board approved a similar resolution a week prior.

The Illinois resolutions amount to little, if anything, more than public expressions of concern and requests to Wisconsin's political leaders and environmental agency to reconsider their decisions to waive the need for an environmental impact assessment and a state wetland permit. There is no formal, institutional body responsible for governance throughout the Des Plaines River watershed.

The Gurnee Village Council is reaching out to other Illinois municipalities and county governments to identify ways to take more potent action, however. That may include taking legal action. More generally and longer term, “more needs to be done on a regional and cross-border basis to mitigate flooding as a result of development. Interstate and intergovernmental cooperation benefits everyone," Kovarik said.

Kovarik also serves on the Lake County Storm Water Management Commission. She said she has had conversations with other elected officials regarding the Foxconn plant and its prospective watershed impacts.

“We hope to gain access and meetings with Wisconsin on the plans for the project related to storm water so we can be better prepared for changes in the potential for flooding in our community,” Kovarik said. “We want to be clear that we are not anti-development. I applaud Wisconsin for pursuing projects that will bring jobs to the area. It just cannot come at the cost of reversing the gains that have been made locally to reduce Des Plaines River flooding."

Gurnee experienced record flooding last summer, which prompted the state of Illinois to declare the area a disaster zone. Gurnee has spent $5 million to $6 million to buy properties near the Des Plaines River in order to create a natural flood buffer zone. The county has spent about $30 million to do the same. Those flood prevention measures could be wiped out as a result of the Foxconn plant being built, according to Kovarik.

“Storm events with heavier rain falls over extended periods of time seem to be increasing in frequency,” Kovarik said. “Replacing hundreds of acres of farmland that acts like a natural sponge is only going to make the situation worse unless the stormwater is held on site and released slowly."

Water pollution is another problem of widespread concern in the Des Plaines River Watershed. Illinois communities are working to create the Des Plaines River Watershed Workgroup to improve the situation. Watershed lakes and streams are polluted by phosphorous, fecal coliform bacteria, chloride and other pollutants, according to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

"It is our belief that economic development and being good stewards of the environment are both possible. It just takes political leadership to do the right thing," Novarik said.

Foxconn and project proponents, including the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce association, sat down with regulators and government officials upon initiation of the project to determine what in the way of environmental assessments and permits would be needed, Vebber said in an interview. It was decided that an environmental impact assessment would not be needed.

Vebber pointed out that Foxconn will invest $30 million to install a closed-loop, Zero Liquid Discharge System at the Mount Pleasant plant. That will lower projected Lake Michigan water usage from 7 million to 2.5 million gallons per day.

“They're going to be using Lake Michigan water, but they won't be discharging it into the river or any bodies of water," Vebber said. "The water will be used and either recycled on-site or sent to the Racine wastewater utility.” 

Furthermore, granting Foxconn an exemption from the need to obtain a state wetland permit was based on two, key criteria: the wetlands are small and isolated and Foxconn will create two acres of wetlands in the same area for every one that is filled in, Vebber said. In addition, Wisconsin is one of the few states that regulates non-federal wetlands, Vebber pointed out.

“Ironically, if the plant were to be built in Illinois, it wouldn't have had to apply for a permit,” he said.