James Rowen
Op Ed

Foxconn Water Request Violates Law

Company wants massive diversion of Lake Michigan water. But DNR won't oppose it.

By - Mar 12th, 2018 04:07 pm
Foxconn chairman Terry Gou and Governor Scott Walker signing a memorandum of understanding. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

Foxconn chairman Terry Gou and Governor Scott Walker signing a memorandum of understanding. Photo from the State of Wisconsin.

You have until March 21 to send the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources your thoughts – – email, regular mail directions, here – – on the application to the DNR for the green-light to divert 7 million gallons a day of Lake Michigan water to GOP Gov. Scott Walker‘s beloved, budget-busting project for Foxconn – – a private business headquartered in Taiwan.

This is the same project financed with record-breaking state subsidies organized by Walker and his compliant, GOP-led state legislature where excavation, paving and building on 3,000 acres of Racine County farmland, wetlands, lake beds and stream courses has been exempted through precedent-setting special-interest legislation from routine state environmental assessments and permit requirements.

So, yes, it’s important to send in your comments and build a strong record in favor of water conservation and Great Lakes integrity — despite plenty of reasons to believe that the approval is in the bag.

The diversion application – – to be reviewed by, and receive its up or down ruling from, the DNR and only the DNR – – also seeks DNR approval for Foxconn’s flat-screen panel production processes to consume about 40 percent of its daily diversion of water, with the balance returned to the lake properly treated.

Here’s an overriding thought about all this to consider:

*  The application has a fundamental credibility problem.


Because the DNR has a credibility problem, having been stripped of authenticity and respectability by a Governor who intentionally installed across top management positions a ‘chamber of commerce mentality.

He also cut its budget, laid off scientific staffers and generally trashed its mission to erase its legacy and weaken its relationship with the public and devalue its importance to individuals by creating in its place —  a hybrid agency — part Department of Agriculture, part Department of Commerce,

Which is why you won’t see the DNR fighting Republican state Sen. Tom Tiffany on his wetland-filing bill Walker just signed into law.

Or opposing Tiffany’s separate bill Walker also recently signed to allow companies to begin very toxic mining statewide that had been barred for the last 20 years.

So you can see why the DNR — this weakened, circumscribed and beaten-down iteration of a once-proud science and conservation-minded agency — is absolutely the wrong body at the wrong time to be asked to objectively assess whether diverting all that water to serve one private business meets the rules of a multi-state Compact created to allow such diversions for extremely-limited and public purposes only:

Jodi Habush Sinykin, an attorney for Midwest Environmental Advocates, said the Great Lakes Compact bans diversions outside the Great Lakes basin unless they meet narrowly defined exceptions. She cited section 4.9.1 of the compact that states “all the water so transferred shall be used solely for public water supply purposes within the straddling community.”

The compact further defines “public water supply” as serving “largely residential customers that may also serve industrial, commercial and other institutional operators,” Sinykin said.

“Rather, the complete opposite is true,” she said. “Racine will use the majority, if not the entirety, of the diverted Great Lakes water to serve the industrial needs of a single, private, foreign industrial entity – Foxconn.”

The DNR should also be reviewing the company’s industrial-scale addition of chemicals to its manufacturing and wastewater treatment processes and the potential impact on the environment. But the DNR as it exists today is in no position to do this, as was explained by Gordon Stevenson, an engineer and former DNR Chief of Runoff Management who now serves Midwest Environmental Advocates as board secretary. At an MEA program in May, 2016, Stevenson said, in part:

For the majority of my career, water policy decisions were based on the strong bond between law and science, the people in charge of making those decisions had conservation and environmental protection credentials, and my colleagues and I shared the belief that Wisconsin’s true and sustaining wealth is its clean water.

Much of that is now changed at DNR. Wisconsin DNR’s water quality permit program has been found seriously deficient by the US Environmental Protection Agency. DNR is failing to protect downstream water from upstream pollution sources, they are allowing already impaired water bodies to get worse and they are suppressing the public’s ability to challenge water quality permit decisions.

Wisconsin DNR’s authority to protect Wisconsin’s water resources is delegated from EPA. Under the delegation agreement, DNR is obligated to administer the federal Clean Water Act. DNR is not doing so. On behalf of 16 Wisconsin citizens, Midwest Environmental Advocates has filed a Citizens Petition for Corrective Action with the US Environmental Protection agency to correct these deficiencies. The petition seeks to restore the credible water quality protection program that we once had in this state.

We’re arriving at an important crossroads in Wisconsin. We have our own version of Flint, Michigan in Kewaunee County where citizens cannot drink the water and we have our own version of the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone. A dead zone now also exists in Green Bay that runs from the City of Green Bay all the way up to Marinette…

Water policy decisions should be based on the strong bond between law and science, that the people in charge of making water quality decisions should have the credentials to do so, and that Wisconsin’s true and sustaining wealth is its clean water.”

In an email to me after his remarks , Stevenson also said:

In addition, DNR management has made it clear to staff that environmental advocacy is no longer the core mission of DNR and staff are disallowed from doing so. What was once a guardian of Wisconsin’s natural heritage is now reduced to a rubber-stamping vendor of licenses and permits without oversight.

Also consider similar, expert remarks from a current staffer included in a 2017 assessment of the DNR on this blog:

The past year has really shown me how the GOP is afraid of and caters to their wealthy donors – some of whom aren’t even that generous. It was obvious before but this year has been brutal. DNR administrators support any development project regardless of environmental impacts. They are not interested in the environment or public health. If they can’t maneuver around the law by bending it, the legislature simply changes the law.

Rich Republican donors feel free to call up the DNR Secretary and Governor and demand that their projects go through. This puts pressure on legislators and DNR upper management. It has created an atmosphere of desperation at all levels of the DNR.

I have witnessed administrators simply ignoring valid environmental and legal concerns from experienced, competent employees and I have seen administrators ignoring the process for determining environmental hazards when granting permits. It is true that DNR doesn’t follow their own processes and skirts the law when possible.

The Secretary’s office seems to have a lot of power. And when that power is wielded by an incurious, pro-business person, bad things happen. So far, even in his short tenure, Dan Meyer has proven himself to be the same as Cathy Stepp.

The only real check on unbridled donor power is the citizen groups and nonprofits who sue. Most of these groups are focused on local problems so it is difficult for the average person to know what damage is being done to other parts of the state.

This, then, is the disemboweled agency that will decide whether Foxconn should be allowed to divert and consume so much of Lake Michigan’s water. The Foxconn diversion review is likely to be nothing more than a done-deal kabuki show ruling in the company’s favor.

James Rowen, a former journalist and mayoral staffer in Milwaukee and Madison, writes a regular blog, The Political Environment

Categories: Environment, Op-Ed, Politics

9 thoughts on “Op Ed: Foxconn Water Request Violates Law”

  1. frank schneiger says:

    The historian Frederick Maitland once said, “We should always be aware that what now lies in the past once lay in the future.” Several decades from now, people will look back and wonder: How did Wisconsin become a corrupt, plutocratic, corporate controlled,, otherized, scapegoat driven, and environmentally degraded backwater? How exactly did that happen?
    Because it will be hard to defend what the state has already become and is becoming, there will be a lot of blaming and blame shifting, along with, “Gosh, we just didn’t know.” Except that everyone did know, at least everyone who wanted to. Scott Walker and his wrecking crew will be just a bad memory, and a history-deprived public will most likely pick the villains based on which set of lies they choose to believe. But there will be no escaping the sad reality of what the state, in a very short period of time, had become under reactionary, plutocratic and corporate rule. And the fact that much of the damage will be either permanent or very difficult to repair.

  2. David Ciepluch says:

    It is now being repeated on the Federal level. It all got its start in the 1980s with Reagan and the “Starve the Beast” strategy and “trickle down economic”. Both built upon epic lies and no foundation in reality.

    We are seeing the rapid collapse of the Republic and representative Democracy.

    It is all about maintaining power and looting from everyone for a select few. Media like Fox lies and hate radio have been indoctrinating enough people since 1987 when Reagan abandoned the Fairness Doctrine and truth in advertising. Republicans have had great concern for the day the are more darker skinned people than whites and have used voter suppression laws, imprisonment, deportations and tactics to tamp down the vote, job losses, and instigate fear among people. We are on a dead end pathway as a nation.

  3. David Ciepluch says:

    Water belongs to the people and the environment. Water is required for life.

    In legal terms, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 of which Wisconsin was a part, made water a public domain. Wisconsin further adopted the Public Trust Doctrine that enshrined water as belonging to the people, and placed in trust with the Department of Natural Resources for the people. This is backed by decades of case law.

    We know today that WDNR and the State Supreme Court have been utterly corrupted and ignore laws, truth, and justice. Wisconsin is a very corrupted state and backwater of the nation. And Wisconsin hates it largest city Milwaukee, and maybe equally so Madison.

  4. John Lunz says:

    I hope MEA takes this to court. I understand the normal route is to appeal to the EPA starting with the regional office, which now ironically is headed by Kathy Stepp! I fear we are totally powerless in this dysfunctional environment.

  5. will says:

    We must fight this for the future of our state where water will be our biggest asset. Wisconsin is under Authoritarian rule with Walker, Vos and the rest of the GOP. We have lost local control to the big corporations who will destroy our way of life.

  6. mike says:

    So am I safe to assume that the author does not have a TV at home since he wouldn’t want to waste precious water anywhere on our planet?

  7. Jess says:

    I sent my email to the DNR. At least it can be recorded. It sounds like there’s not much hope for the DNR to the right thing. It’s hard to not get caught up in the immense sadness I feel as our state slips off into the “don’t give a fuck about the environment abyss”. This disconnect that people have with our environment, with our natural resources is what needs mending. If you truly respect yourself then you respect the earth and all that comes from it. We are interconnected to each other and to the earth, if the individuals in power honored and understood this our state would be doing so much better.

  8. Terry says:

    It doesn’t violate the law when you.just change the law! Just like Career Politician Scott Walker and Republicans always do. That is how it works in Walker’s Wississippi! Wisconsin got FOXCONNED!

    Dump Trump
    Dump Walker

  9. Emily says:

    Foxconn will pollute Wisconsin’s water and have reprocusions for the pollution. There is no need for a company that makes tablets to need that much water pumped into their building.

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