Wisconsin Foxconn plant pollution potential prompts resolutions, lawsuit
October 5, 2018

A drawing from an EPA document shows air pollution from southern Wisconsin traveling south to Illinois to Cook and surrounding counties.

By Igor Studenkov

More pollution may be coming to Illinois from Wisconsin, and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan joined by the City of Chicago, has filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Robert Kaplan, who then served as acting regional administrator for the Federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Region 5, which includes Illinois and other states within the Great Lakes region, on Dec. 20, 2017, wrote a letter informing Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker that Kaplan’s agency intended to give Wisconsin’s Racine County the “non-attainment” designation for not meeting air quality standards.

Taipei, Taiwan-based Foxconn Technology Group plans to build its new manufacturing and technology campus in Racine County. While the EPA non-attainment designation would not have prevented Foxconn from building the facility, it would have required the company to install more stringent and thus more expensive air pollution controls. According to the letter, the State of Wisconsin recommended the county get the “attainment” designation, which permits less stringent pollution controls; based on air quality data, the EPA decided against it.

When the EPA released the list of designations on April 30, 2018, however, Racine County did not appear on it. The original supporting documents explained Racine County’s contribution to regional pollution was enough to receive the non-attainment designation, but the revised report stated officials had no way to be sure whether it was contributing any pollution, so it was one of several counties they removed from the list, and these counties were now in “attainment.”

On Aug. 2, Madigan, along with the City of Chicago, filed a lawsuit in against the EPA. Madigan alleged that the EPA improperly designated a number of counties in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin as in “attainment” with the air quality standard for ozone. The designations mean that these counties do not need to take steps to reduce smog, despite the EPA’s previous determination that the counties were not in compliance with the ozone air quality standard.

Designating Racine County, the future home of the $10 billion Foxconn electronics manufacturing area, as in attainment allows the development to avoid meeting stricter standards for controlling smog, and Madigan alleged that would hurt air quality in nearby Illinois counties.

“The science is clear on the health effects of air pollution: increased asthma attacks, wheezing, and shortness of breath from ozone; and heart attacks and preterm birth from particulate matter, are just a few examples,” said Susan Buchanan, clinical associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences in the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, and director of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health. “The purpose of air pollution regulation is to promote human health, and great strides have been made in the 30 years in our country’s air quality. But deaths from asthma and heart attacks, and severe asthma attacks continue. We know that some of these are caused by exposure to air pollutants.”

The Illinois Environmental Council, a Springfield-based environmental policy lobbying group, has expressed concern about the Foxconn facility’s environmental impact on Illinois. Jennifer Walling, the organization’s executive director, told Gazette Chicago that it seemed clear that, when it came to the attainment designation, federal law was not being followed.

“The attainment permit is a federal issue, and it’s very clear that the decision shouldn’t have been made,” she said. “It’s pretty clear that the standards that were put in place for this permit were not appropriate for the area. They’re changing attainment areas [based on standards] that really don’t fit federal definitions. It should be pretty clear that this was done without looking at the federal law.”

Walling said that this has been part of a broader pattern where the State of Wisconsin and EPA relaxed environmental restrictions in order to encourage Foxconn to build a plant in that state.

“I think a lot of things have been done to locate the facility in Wisconsin that have high risk for harming human health and environment,” she said.

For example, Walling said, wetland mitigation permits have been waived – which, she said, already seems to be causing increased flooding in Lake County.

Data questioned

Mike Mikulka, president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 704, the labor union that represents EPA employees in Chicago and throughout Region 5, told Gazette Chicago he believed Madigan had grounds to address the issue because he has not seen any scientific data supporting the change of designations from non-attainment to attainment. He also believes the situation raises other issues that the Office of Illinois Attorney General might want to investigate.

Attainment designations signify where a county has been able to meet the most recently established National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). In 2015, the EPA lowered the primary eight-hour ozone standard from 0.075 parts per million (ppm) to 0.070 ppm to provide increased  protection of public health.

As part of the designation process, state governments must recommend which counties should receive attainment designation. According to the letter and EPA technical support document, the State of Wisconsin recommended all counties near its border with Illinois, including Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee counties, be designated as having reached attainment. In December 2017, the EPA recommended either full-fledged or partial non-attainment designations for all counties in question.

According to an EPA technical support document, Racine County and nearby Washington and Waukesha counties do not, by themselves, generate enough pollution to trigger air quality monitors, but they contribute enough pollution to the nearby areas that do trigger air monitors to receive a non-attainment status. This conclusion was based on a combination of air quality data, emissions data, population density, and traffic levels.

“The EPA has concluded that [Racine County and other] nearby areas contribute to the ozone concentrations in violation of the 2015 ozone NAAQS through emissions from point and non-point sources into the counties with violating monitors,” the report stated. “Waukesha County has, by far, the highest [nitrogen dioxide] and [volatile organic compounds] emissions in the…counties without violating monitors, followed by Racine and Washington counties, which have the next greatest [nitrogen dioxide] emissions.”

Environmentalists are worried about possible increased pollution when Foxconn opens its facility.

In his letter, Kaplan wrote that the State of Wisconsin could submit any information that affects the EPA’s conclusions.

Photo courtesy Slowking
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan may sue the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to stop increased air pollution from coming to Illinois from Wisconsin.

EPA says ‘no evidence;’ Madigan disagrees

The report goes on to explain that, between the EPA analysis and Wisconsin data, there is no evidence that contributing counties, including Racine County, actually generate enough pollution to affect pollution levels in counties that triggered air monitors. That belief led officials to give the counties the attainment designation.

“EPA does not believe that there is sufficient evidence of contribution from the other areas in the area of analysis and thus a designation consisting of the area violating the standard is appropriate,” the report stated.

In response to comments issued along with the EPA supporting document, the agency noted designations are based on air pollution as it is measured now. Because the Foxconn plant has not been built, the EPA cannot take whatever pollution it will generate into account. 

Mikulka told Gazette Chicago he remained skeptical about how EPA reconsidered the decision, saying he was not convinced the data would support an attainment designation.

“It’s normally a technical basis for changing determination,” he said. “Is there any more monitoring data, or was more monitoring needed, or was there insufficient monitoring? I don’t believe any of those came up. So I think, under the circumstances, I don’t see how determination can be changed.”

Illinois Attorney General Madigan stated the EPA’s final decision ignored data showing that, on average, Racine County exceeded the 0.070 ppm ozone limit between 2015 and 2017.

According to both the original and the revised report, no data is available for 2014. In 2015, Racine County came in at just less than the limit, at 0.068 ppm, and in 2016 it exceeded the limit, at 0.076 ppm. The average of the two numbers available—0.072 ppm— slightly exceeds the limit.

“Despite its name, the Environmental Protection Agency now operates with total disregard for the quality of our air and water, and in this case, the U.S. EPA is putting a company’s profit ahead of our natural resources and the public’s health,” Madigan said, noting she was filing the lawsuit “to protect the environment and people from the consequences of this unsupported decision.”

Decision to file

Mikulka agrees with Madigan filing the suit.

“I think it’s within the duty of the attorney general to look at what is going on in an adjacent state,” he said.

Walling said that her organization supports Madigan’s lawsuit.

“I think the air permit [decision] needs to be challenged and, if the facility is put in place, making sure environmental laws are enforced is very important,” she said.

“With the proposed manufacturing facility less than 90 miles away, Chicago has legitimate concerns about the Trump administration loosening pollution regulations that can impact our environment and our residents’ health,” said Ed Siskel, City of Chicago Corporation Counsel. “We are joining with the Attorney General to raise the alarm about the decision and to send a strong message to the EPA that it has an obligation to protect our environment.”

Ultimately, Mikulka finds water-related environmental issues even more pressing. He voiced concern that the manufacturing facility will go up on wetlands.

“Water is stored at wetlands rather than going off to adjacent proprieties,” Mikulka said. “If the wetland is going to be filled, it would take away storage capacity of those wetlands.”

Putting the facility on a river basin would worsen flooding, especially in the Des Plaines River in north and northwestern suburbs in Illinois, he added.

“I think this issue is certainly something that bears attention of the Attorney General,” Mikulka said.

He also explained that the Foxconn facility is expected to draw seven million gallons of water daily from Lake Michigan, with two million used in its production process and five million discharged.

“Will the water be treated and released, and to where?” Mikulka asked. “Will it go back to the river basin and the Great Lakes basin? That is the issue that is purview of the attorney general to look at.”

Foxconn announced it agreed to adopt a Zero Liquid Discharge system by recycling most of the water, reducing both the amount of water it needs and the amount of polluted water it releases. This step will reduce the facility’s water intake by about a half, and while it addresses the water pollution issue, it doesn’t resolve the flooding issue, Mikulka noted.

The Board of Commissioners of Lake County, the closest Illinois county to southeast Wisconsin, on June 18 passed a resolution opposing the plant because of the aforementioned flooding and pollution concerns. On May 31, 2018, the Illinois State Senate adopted a resolution urging Illinois State agencies to take action against loss of water resources, flooding, and other ecological impacts of the Foxconn facility.

“In summary, I believe it’s appropriate for the Illinois Attorney General to look at this very closely,” Mikulka said.

After the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources approved air permits for Foxconn, Randy Bryce, the Democratic candidate for Congress in Racine County, said, “For Scott Walker, it wasn’t enough that taxpayers forked over billions of dollars to Foxconn. He expects us to sacrifice our air quality, too.”

Martha Laning, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, said, “I’m thankful that the Illinois Attorney General is doing her job by taking a stand to protect air quality on behalf of the citizens of both Wisconsin and Illinois.”

The Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, the EPA, and Gov. Scott Walker’s office declined to comment for this article. Foxconn could not be reached for comment.