EDITORIAL: Protect Lake Michigan as Foxconn builds in Wisconsin

SHARE EDITORIAL: Protect Lake Michigan as Foxconn builds in Wisconsin

Visitors take selfies along the frozen shore of Lake Michigan on Jan. 3 in Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Maybe it’s time to run up one of those marine warning flags on behalf of Lake Michigan.

An effort to speed construction of a Foxconn complex in Wisconsin is opening a dangerous crack in an important eight-state law designed to protect Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes.

Officials in the other states, beginning with Illinois, should do all they can to ensure the Foxconn project doesn’t weaken the 2008 law, which is called the Great Lakes Compact. Without a strong law, more hazardous pollutants could find their way into the lakes, more water could be diverted out of the lakes, and the lakes’ future could be imperiled.


Foxconn, to be based near Racine, wants to draw 7 million gallons of water a day out of Lake Michigan as part of its plan to manufacture liquid crystal display panels and eventually add fabrication and glass manufacturing. About 60 percent of the water would be returned to the lake as wastewater, but the rest would be lost. The Taiwan company says the complex would employ as many as 13,000 people. If done right, the project could greatly benefit the region.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin wants to rush the regulatory process. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources says it will decide on a permit for Foxconn in about 90 days. Environmentalists say that’s simply not enough time to consider a host of complicated issues.

Wisconsin, for its own sake and as a good neighbor, should slow down.

What makes the Foxconn plan unusual is that part of its site is outside the Great Lakes drainage basin, which means it normally wouldn’t be allowed to use lake water. The Great Lakes Compact is designed to keep lake water in the basin, so the lakes aren’t slowly drained away by increasingly thirsty users outside the area.

The compact does include careful exceptions for so-called straddling communities like Mount Pleasant, where Foxconn will be located, that are partly inside the Great Lakes basin and partly out of it. The exceptions, which are intended for public water supplies, include strict rules to prevent pollution from entering the lakes and a requirement that as much water as possible be returned to the lakes to minimize the effect of new diversions.

Last year, for example, the governors of all eight states approved a diversion for Waukesha, which is in a straddling Wisconsin county, after a lengthy and thorough review process.

But the Foxconn plan is doing an end run around the water compact. Mount Pleasant has not been asked to supply water for the complex. Instead, the water would be piped in from Racine, which is entirely in the basin. That means other states won’t have a say in the approval process and the longer review process won’t be required. It’s a scheme that environmentalists never envisioned when the eight-state water compact was drawn up.

Here’s the heart of the threat: By avoiding getting its water from a so-called straddling community — in this case Mount Pleasant — Foxconn can avoid the strict environmental provisions that would be required, according to Jodi Habush Sinykin, a lawyer for Midwest Environmental Advocates.

And that’s got environmentalists worried that Foxconn could dump water into Lake Michigan that is tainted by dangerous levels of nickel, zinc, iron and other pollutants, perhaps even mercury.

In a move that worries environmentalists, Wisconsin already has waived some environmental rules for Foxconn. And though the U.S. EPA also has authority to review such projects under the Clean Water Act, the Trump administration is pushing the agency in an anti-regulatory direction.

All of us, not just professional environmentalists, have reason to be nervous.

“The concern is that Wisconsin has gone about this in a way that prioritizes getting this built,” said Joel Brammeier, president and CEO of the Alliance for the Great Lakes. “You don’t have to cut down basic protections to get development to happen.”

We must maintain strong protections against hazardous pollutants entering the lakes, and the early signs from Wisconsin are not encouraging. Foxconn has said it would pre-treat wastewater, but has not spelled out what that means. It also has not made clear which pollutants will be discharged from its plant. Environmentalists have little information upon which to offer statements during the public comment period, and the 90-day clock is ticking.

The Great Lakes appear vast, but they are vulnerable, and the stakes are high. More than 40 million people in the United States and Canada depend on the lakes for drinking water, and 1.5 million jobs are tied directly to the lakes.

The legal precedent that Wisconsin sets with Foxconn must be one that protects water quality and ensures that an ever-increasing number of users aren’t sticking straws into Lake Michigan. If not, similar proposals are sure to emerge all around the Great Lakes, and the water compact will be undermined.

Lake Michigan and the other Great Lakes are our gems. Wisconsin must do its part, always, to protect them.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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