Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to exempt Foxconn from state wetland restrictions may do more to attract smaller developments in the future than it will to lure the electronics giant to Wisconsin, critics of the plan say.

For the Sierra Club, that raises the question of whether job gains from smaller facilities would justify losses of wetland that prevent flooding, purify water and provide wildlife habitat.

Walker and Republican lawmakers have defended a vast package of incentives for Foxconn by saying it will secure a “once-in-a-generation” promise of thousands of jobs.

Backers and opponents of the Foxconn incentives package moving through the Legislature are anticipating that a broader regulatory rollback may spring from Walker’s stated plan to exempt only the Taiwan-based electronics giant from certain environmental rules.

The Walker incentives bill approved by the state Assembly on Thursday would empower the governor’s economic development agency to create an “information technology manufacturing zone” with relaxed regulations.

According to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the bill would allow the zone to be drawn to include businesses other than Foxconn. And the proposal includes a provision the state business lobby had assumed would deliver environmental exemptions to certain businesses.

But Walker’s office said Thursday that the geographic boundaries of the “information technology manufacturing zone” that carries relaxed wetlands and waterways rules would be drawn to include Foxconn only, after the company chooses a site.

Exemptions from wetland and waterway permits are part of a $3 billion incentive package designed to induce Foxconn to build a 1,000-acre LCD screen manufacturing complex.

Critics of the incentives say streamlined permitting would be less significant for Foxconn than it would be for smaller businesses with fewer resources locating in parts of the state with more state-protected wetlands, lakes and streams.

“Foxconn has capacity to navigate regs,” Americans for Prosperity state director Eric Bott said in an Aug. 1 Twitter post. “These exemptions would be even more helpful to small businesses who don’t have that ability.” The conservative group opposes the incentives.

Wisconsin Wetlands Association director Tracy Hames said the exemption is puzzling because the land Foxconn is reportedly considering in southeastern Wisconsin doesn’t have significant state-protected wetlands.

“Looking up and down this corridor, it doesn’t look like the wetland permitting would be a significant problem,” Hames said. “The question is why put those exemptions in there, and what kind of problems could they cause in the future.”

Recent flooding in southeastern Wisconsin underlines the importance of preserving and even restoring wetlands, which slow the flow of rainwater and snow melt, in addition to providing wildlife habitat and purifying water, Hames said.

Sierra Club director Bill Davis said he is concerned because the incentives bill, which still faces a vote in the state Senate, would give the Walker administration great flexibility in creating the zone that provides environmental exemptions.

Without strong scrutiny of plans to fill state-protected wetlands, there are few assurances about how neighboring land would be affected, Davis said.

“It’s a huge recipe for problems downstream,” Davis said.

WMC wants exemptions

for other businesses, too

A lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce said he had assumed other businesses — not just Foxconn — would be exempted from environmental regulations under a bill provision that allowed permitting waivers for business activities related to Foxconn construction and operations.

Legislative Fiscal Bureau program supervisor Paul Ferguson said the agency reads that provision more narrowly to apply only to activities within the zone.

WMC’s Scott Manley said he hopes the Foxconn exemptions will eventually be applied to all businesses in Wisconsin because current state regulations are unnecessary and burdensome.

“We will essentially do a proof of concept, that, yes, we can streamline things and still have great environmental outcomes,” Manley said in an interview on radio station WISN.

Wisconsin’s regulations protect isolated wetlands that aren’t covered by federal regulations. Manley called the Foxconn exemptions “modest” because they don’t eliminate federal scrutiny. In some circumstances it’s possible Walker’s bill could increase the amount of wetlands Foxconn would need to create to replace wetlands it destroyed.

The bill exempts Foxconn from four types of permits that are otherwise required for filling wetlands, straightening streams, and disturbing other waterways. It also eliminates Foxconn’s responsibility to create an environmental impact statement that would allow the public to review all the possible harm that could be done to air, water and soil.

The company would still be subject to permit limits on air pollution, wastewater discharges and disposal of hazardous waste.

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