How Foxconn Will Pollute Wisconsin
And why the company may get away with it.
From the beginning, it was clear that Gov. Scott Walker was wooing an international polluter to locate a major manufacturing plant here.
The Taiwanese company Foxconn’s record in China was abysmal. At its plant in Chengdu, China, which made iPads for Apple, audits by Apple found improper disposal of hazardous waste and workers injured by toxic chemical exposures, as the New York Times reported. The conditions were so horrific that at least 18 Foxconn workers “attempted suicide or fell from buildings in manners that suggested suicide attempts.”
Some workers at the factory operated polishing machines that produce clouds of microscopic aluminum dust 12 hours a day. “I’m breathing aluminum dust at Foxconn like a vacuum cleaner,” said one worker. The dust caused explosions that killed and injured workers.
At a Chinese factory run by Wintek, a Foxconn subcontractor, 137 workers were seriously injured by n-hexane, a toxic chemical that can cause nerve damage and paralysis and which was used in making the signature glass screens of the iPhone, another Times story reported.
The LCD screens being made by Foxconn require such metals as mercury, cadmium, chromium, zinc and copper, as Peter Adriaens, professor of environmental engineering at the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press. “We know that outside manufacturing plants of Foxconn, rivers are very polluted,” he said. Less stringent oversight in China makes it difficult to know for certain if Foxconn is responsible, but, he added: “The correlation is very strong.”
In Wisconsin, the contract Walker and Republicans awarded Foxconn exempted it from the usual environmental rules, allowing it to discharge materials into wetlands and reroute streams during construction and operation. And Act 56, the law providing the massive funding for Foxconn, also exempted the company from doing an Environmental Impact Statement. As a result, “there is no holistic evaluation of the combined impacts on the air and water,” Paul Mathewson, Staff Scientist with the non-profit Clean Wisconsin, tells Urban Milwaukee. “For example, there are all these road projects going on to accommodate all this extra traffic associated with the project, but we have not seen any evaluation of these emissions (from this) combined with the emissions from the facility itself.”
Documents filed with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources by Foxconn show the plant will cause significant air pollution. “Records show Foxconn will emit hundreds of tons of carbon monoxide, particulates, sulfur dioxide, various hazardous air pollutants, as well as VOCs and NOx, each year,” as Lee Bergquist of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. The plant will emit enough VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and and NOx (nitrogen oxides) to make it one of the worst such polluters in southeastern Wisconsin, behind only the coal-fired power plants in Oak Creek, Pleasant Prairie and Sheboygan. And it would have the highest emissions of VOCs, the story noted.
The federal EPA has already determined that Racine County exceeds tougher ozone requirements established under the Obama administration, but Gov. Walker has asked the Trump administration to set aside these limits. If Walker succeeds, this will be yet another exception for Foxconn, allowing it to violate previously accepted environmental standards.
The result will be more ozone, which causes, contributes to, or exacerbates a number of respiratory problems including asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. That has huge health consequences. “In 2011, a peer-reviewed EPA study found that reductions in smog and fine particle pollution prevented more than 160,000 early deaths, 130,000 heart attacks and millions of asthma cases nationwide during 2010 alone,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
Louis Woo, a spokesperson for Foxconn, did an Op Ed for the Journal Sentinel promising the company “is fully committed to complying with all laws and regulations that apply to our operations.” But he included a built-in rationale for not restricting Foxconn, noting that “Racine County ozone is overwhelmingly the result of air pollution transported from upwind states.”
With that approach, no federal pollution controls would be possible, since all air pollution travels across states.
There are also questions about the amount of water pollution Foxconn will cause. The manufacturing of LCD screens requires huge amounts of water, and the company has sought state permission “to tap as much as 7 million gallons a day from Lake Michigan…just slightly less than the daily amount of lake water Milwaukee will ship to the City of Waukesha,” as Bergquist reported. Of that total 39 percent would be lost, mostly through evaporation, and 4.3 million gallons would be returned to the lake via the City of Racine’s water system.
“There’s an argument that this is not public infrastructure,” Jim Olson, an environmental lawyer in Michigan, argued in a “Stateline” story by the Pew Charitable Trusts. Olson believes the deal could open the door to similar projects that will slowly drain the Great Lakes basin. “If you interpret the exceptions to the diversion ban too broadly, you have to treat anyone else that comes along in a somewhat equal manner,” he warned.
As to the water pollution created, making LCDs requires heavy metals such as mercury, cadmium, chromium, zinc and copper, Adriaens noted, and will “generate liquid waste streams.”
Foxconn has yet to submit any information to the state Department of Revenue to explain how it will handle water clean up. The key question, says Mathewson, “is whether they will be able to treat the wastewater well enough that the Racine Water Utility can properly clean it before discharging it into the lake. Wastewater Utilities are not equipped to treat specialized industrial wastewater streams.”
And even should Foxconn’s application show it intends to properly clean the huge volume of polluted water it will generate, there is reason to doubt the state DNR will monitor this and enforce the law. A 2016 Legislative Audit Bureau report found the DNR did not enforce its own water quality standards 94 percent of the time.
And given that the Walker administration is a huge investor in the Foxconn plant, giving it more than $4 billion in state and local tax support, its message to the DNR — which has lost most of its scientific staff and any civil service protections — is likely be crystal clear: go easy on the company.
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- Murphy’s Law: The Foxconn Real Estate Show - Bruce Murphy - Feb 25th, 2021
- Murphy’s Law: Local Costs for Foxconn Cut By 2% - Bruce Murphy - Feb 8th, 2021
- Foxconn Sued for Breach of Contract - Corri Hess - Feb 4th, 2021
- Vos and Wanggaard Continue to Gaslight Public on Foxconn Development - A Better Mt. Pleasant - Feb 3rd, 2021
- Murphy’s Law: Robin Vos Will Solve Foxconn Fiasco - Bruce Murphy - Feb 2nd, 2021
- Murphy’s Law: 9 Reasons a New Foxconn Contract Is Unlikely - Bruce Murphy - Dec 21st, 2020
- Audit Says Foxconn Loophole Needs a Fix - Corri Hess - Dec 9th, 2020
- Back in the News: Residents Outraged by Foxconn Fiasco - Bruce Murphy - Dec 8th, 2020
- Back in the News: Foxconn Landing Google Contract? - Bruce Murphy - Nov 23rd, 2020
- Op Ed: Mistake? Foxconn Was a Whopper - John Torinus - Oct 30th, 2020
Read more about Foxconn Facility here