By TODD RICHMOND
MADISON (AP) — The top conservation official in Wisconsin promised Wednesday that regulatory rollbacks in Gov. Scott Walker’s incentive plan for the giant Foxconn plant proposed for the state’s southeast corner won’t harm the environment.
Cathy Stepp, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources Secretary and a Walker appointee, told the agency’s board during a meeting in Milwaukee that the plant is a “gift.” She said Walker’s incentives proposal merely streamlines the bureaucratic process and that the DNR will prove the state can meet the company’s needs and still protect the environment, she said.
“It is a gift to us to have the confidence of the company,” Stepp said. “Wisconsin DNR will absolutely prove (balancing the environment and business) can be done and this is the project to do it on.”
President Donald Trump announced last month that Foxconn, a giant Taiwanese electronics manufacturer, would build a 20 million-square-foot plant in Wisconsin. The company has said the factory could employ as many as 13,000 people.
Walker has introduced a bill that would lay out up to $3 billion in incentives for the plant. The proposal includes a host of tax breaks and would relax the environmental regulations the factory would otherwise be subject to.
The proposal, for example, would lift the requirement that state agencies prepare environmental impact statements on the plant’s construction and operations. Foxconn also wouldn’t need to obtain state permits for a wide range of activities, including filling in wetlands, building on lake or river beds, changing the course of streams, building artificial water bodies that connect to existing waterways and modifying shorelines.
Conservationists have excoriated the environmental exemptions, complaining that yhe lack of environmental impact statements will leave the public in the dark about what harm the plant might cause and the lack of permit requirements will lead to the destruction of wetlands.
Stepp told the DNR board that Foxconn would still have to obtain state and federal air- and water-quality permits, as well as waste permits and federal approval to fill federal wetlands.
She also pointed out that the bill requires the company to restore 2 acres of wetlands for every acre lost, a higher standard than is set by current law, which calls for 1.2 acres to be restored for every acre lost.
It’s still unclear exactly what permits the plant would need since Foxconn hasn’t yet chosen a site for the plant, Stepp said. But she pledged the department will evaluate the environmental impact for every required permit.
The state Assembly plans to take the first votes on the bill next week. Committee approval is expected early during the week and the full Assembly will take up the proposal on Aug. 17. An approval then would send the bill to the state Senate.
Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said Wednesday that he wants lawmakers to complete work on the state budget before turning to the Foxconn incentives.
The budget was supposed to be in place by July 1 but Republican infighting over how to pay for road construction has brought work on the spending plan to a standstill.
Walker signed a deal with Foxconn promising the incentive package would be finished by Sept. 30. Fitzgerald said lawmakers still should be able to meet that deadline.