Foxconn Location Tied to Water Use

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Premiere Date: 
August 11, 2017

Foxconn Location Tied to Water Use

As the discussion over environmental impacts of Foxconn continues, WisContext reporter Scott Gordon explores the role that water usage plays in LCD manufacturing. The proposed locations along Lake Michigan could require special consideration and could involve approval by the Great Lakes Compact.

Episode Transcript

Frederica Freyberg:

Wherever Foxconn locates, proximity to a vast water source would be key. Our partners at WisContext did some digging on just what's required and just what the rules are for where the company would most easily get the water. We went to the shores of Lake Michigan in Racine to talk with journalist Scott Gordon. Scott, how much water do expects think this kind of manufacturing process would take? 

Scott Gordon:

I've seen estimates of up to 15.8 million gallons of water per day. Manufacturing electronics is a pretty water-intensive process, and to manufacture LCD screens is pretty water-intensive, too. 

Frederica Freyberg:

What are the specific rules under the Great Lakes Compact for who can take Lake Michigan water? 

Scott Gordon:

The terms under which they do that are going to depend in large part on location. Basically the line of the Great Lakes basin sort of dictates a lot of how that works. If you are within this sort of borderline of the Great Lakes basin, then you have access to that. If you are in a straddling community where part of your city boundaries or whatever are inside the basin and part are out, then you can get access to that. If you are in a county that straddles, but the community itself is outside the line, then you can ask the Great Lakes Compact Council for a diversion and go through the process that the City of Waukesha recently went through to get its access to water. But it really all does depend on location. So if they want to use Lake Michigan water, chances are they are going to work for a location in the community that straddles the Great Lakes basin where you have access of that. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Because even if you are not fully within the Great Lakes basin, if you are in an area that as you say straddles that basin dividing line, then you can take this water and use as much of it as you need? 

Scott Gordon:

Not necessarily as much of it as you need. If you create a consumptive use of the water, meaning you can't restore that resource back into the basin over a certain threshold, then that triggers a review of what you're doing under the Great Lakes Compact which isn't necessarily a binding thing, but it certainly invites a bit more scrutiny. 

Frederica Freyberg:

It triggers a review but not necessarily a vote of all the Great Lakes governors as did the Waukesha water diversion. 

Scott Gordon:

Exactly. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Under the special session bill that's going through the legislature right now, written into that legislation is a streamlining of environmental protections at the very least. Is that right? 

Scott Gordon:

Yes, to say the least. The plan in any case would have to comply with federal environmental regulations and it would still have to comply with state environmental regulations technically but under this bill they're waiving a bunch of requirements for all kinds of permits, to alter streams and wetlands and other things. They're waiving the requirement for Foxconn to submit an environmental impact statement before beginning construction which as people have said is one of the main tools that the state uses to kind of get ahead of environmental problems at a given project site. The Great Lakes Compact does give states some discretion as to how they implement the compact within their borders. And the special session bill is essentially streamlining that as well.

Frederica Freyberg:

Is there ever any danger of sucking too much water out of Lake Michigan? 

Scott Gordon:

That's kind of a hard question to answer. People are supposed to be putting back, to a large extent, the water they are using from the Great Lakes basin. But they are permitted a bit of consumptive use so again, it's not like they're replenishing every single drop. And the natural recharge of the lakes is about 1% of their volume per year. That's why people have these agreements in place to try to sustain that resource. And there is some concern that more and more companies will be attracted to the Midwest by this resource, especially as they look around the world and see parts of the world and parts of the United States that are really struggling with the sustainability of their water resources. The analyst who gave that 15.8 million-gallon estimate also said that he anticipates more electronics manufacturers will be drawn to this region in part because of this. 

Frederica Freyberg:

Obviously that's a very good thing for economic development but a very fragile thing given the resource that is here on just off this shore. 

Scott Gordon:

Right. It's interesting because a lot of the agreements and regulations that people have around the Great Lakes like the Great Lakes Compact were kind of born in part out of this fear that outsiders would come into the region and, you know, divert these resources. There was a great outrage in the late '90s about a company in Canada that wanted to take millions of gallons of Great Lakes water and ship it to Asia. And now we have possibly a lot more interest in foreign, or at least out of the region, companies coming in establishing a footprint here, in part to take advantage of those resources. 

Frederica Freyberg:

I was joined by Scott Gordon of WisContext. You can find his and other in-depth reporting by going to WisContext.org.

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