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Saturday October 21st, 2017 1:05AM

Wisconsin DNR chief: Foxconn bill won't harm environment

By The Associated Press
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MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin's top conservation official promised Wednesday that regulatory rollbacks in Gov. Scott Walker's incentive plan for a giant Foxconn plant won't harm the state's environment.

Department of Natural Resources Secretary Cathy Stepp, a Walker appointee, told the agency's board during a meeting in Milwaukee that the plant is a "gift." Walker's incentives proposal merely streamlines the bureaucratic process and 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 facility 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 measure includes a host of tax breaks. It also would relax environmental regulations for the facility.

For example, the proposal would lift the requirement that state agencies prepare environmental impact statements on plant construction and operations. Foxconn also wouldn't need to obtain state permits for a wide range of activities, including filling 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 ripped the environmental exemptions. The 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 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 current law, which stipulates 1.2 acres restored for every acre lost.

It's still unclear exactly what permits the plant would need since Foxconn hasn't yet settled on 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, with committee approval expected early during the week and a full floor session on Aug. 17. Passage 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. State spending continues at current levels until a new budget is approved.

Walker signed a deal with Foxconn promising the incentive package would be finalized by Sept. 30. Fitzgerald said lawmakers still should be able to meet that deadline.

___

Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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