Foxconn Could Be Environmental Disaster

Marginal jobs for enormous tax subsidies, plus air and water pollution.
Ron Legro

Chatter among Wisconsin’s business, media and political classes has sucked all the clean air out of the room in contemplating news that Taiwan-based electronics assembler Foxconn perhaps will build a gigantic factory in the state. Foxconn is the biggest assembler of electronic devices in the world.

All this romance over a firm whose operations in China have been criticized for a 19th century approach to the workplace, which is to suggest surprisingly inhumane conditions, the kind that literally drive some workers to suicide.

According to reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Wisconsin taxpayers may have to underwrite $3 billion in giveaways to Foxconn to get it to build a plant somewhere in southeastern Wisconsin. So much, if that happens, for the fiscally prudent leadership of Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow GOP spenders in the state legislature. As the Journal Sentinel also reported, those sums are sizable multiples of the biggest public incentives ever awarded before by the state to Wisconsin businesses.

Meanwhile, Republican-managed state government has been whacking public educational support by the billions of dollars, including austerity cuts to the once top-tier, R&D powerhouse University of Wisconsin. Now we see where those savings effectively might effectively be redeployed: On a private factory floor. A really, really big factory floor, but still. In Wisconsin and across this nation, political needs trump science and economics with increasing alacrity.

Which is not to say jobs aren’t a good thing, especially these days, but all things are relative.

I did a back-of-envelope calculation: Start with the high end of the reported public tax subsidy. Then assume the plant would eventually employ 10,000 workers (it might be 3,000 to start, apparently). In that case, if it could deploy these funds entirely on salaries, Foxconn could receive enough public tax dollars to go a decade or three before needing to spend a single dime of its own. Beyond that time frame, big-box operators are notoriously cranky when it’s “give us more aid or we might have to pull out” renegotiation time.

But beyond all this wrangling uncertainty we surely will face the under-discussed issue of environmental impacts. According to the Journal Sentinel, Foxconn was attracted to Wisconsin (and potentially Michigan) because of the bordering Great Lakes and their plentiful supply of fresh water, an increasingly rare resource worldwide.

A factory of Foxconn’s anticipated size could require millions of gallons of water per day. On paper, Lake Michigan could supply that. But you may ask yourself: What do electronics manufacturers do with all that water? Where does it go when they’re done with it, and in what condition?

Many people might regard electronics as a clean industry, what with all those iconic “white rooms” and workers in high-tech protective gear. Fact is, electronics is a dirty business; no black smoke coming out of a stack, surely, but invisible nasties all the same. Modern micro-circuitry depends on exotic metals and powerful, even acidic chemical treatment of them. The water is used to wash off the product when it is newly manufactured, to remove dust and other impurities.

Environmentally there are two potential sub-issues to consider here: The first issue is what discharges would leave the plant, to what extent they would be treated, and what kinds of costs if any this might exact on public treatment systems. The other issue involves what impurities would be captured in such a plant but still ride home with the employees.

Let’s assume the state and Foxconn strike a deal and the plant indeed locates in Wisconsin near Lake Michigan and the often-mentioned cities of Racine or Kenosha, which have massive unused water system capacity. Foxconn’s used water — possibly tainted with toxic metals and other contaminants — then will need to be returned to the Great Lakes watershed.

Across the last century, Wisconsin struggled with pollutant discharges into rivers and lakes from tanneries, heavy-metal fabricators and other industrial processes. Water treatment was less advanced or non-existent during much of that era. While treatment today is substantially better, it isn’t perfect nor is it cheap.

Could the public trust today’s business-centric Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to ensure that Foxconn discharges meet EPA standards and are free of exotic impurities? Especially given that the plant and its political origins instantly would become the billion-dollar elephant in the room? Maybe EPA standards aren’t good enough. Maybe the sponsoring city’s sewage treatment plant nevertheless will be capable of processing these discharges. But until there’s advance assurance in writing, maybe you shouldn’t drink the water.

But maybe you should hold your breath, because the other environmental issue here is that airborne toxic discharges are a big threat to workers in such electronics plants, not just in the third world but the US which still does too little to protect them. From a 2015 story on pollution-afflicted workers in US electronics plants:

..The damage, it turns out, isn’t confined to the workers themselves. Building on science more than a century old, recent studies have found ties between parental exposures and childhood afflictions such as brain tumors, malformations, and learning disabilities. A bi-coastal consortium of toxic-tort lawyers has begun targeting electronics manufacturers, blaming chemical-intensive processes for skeletal abnormalities, developmental delays, heart defects, and other problems in workers’ children.

Elsewhere in the same dispatch, there is this:

There are not enough government protections for the types of exposures that occur,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California–San Francisco. “OSHA’s not even really dealing with cancer, so this is another order down.

Indeed, OSHA itself says that many of its exposure limits for dangerous substances don’t offer sufficient protection for workers. Parsing 30 years of agency data, the Center found that when air samples across all industries tested positive for teratogenic mercury vapor, they were above the legal limit less than 1 percent of the time. But a third of the samples topped the much stricter limit recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

For technical wonks, here’s a solid, 1997 technical overview of the environmental issues of a Foxconn type operation, from (of all places) the World Bank. It’s daunting. Donald Trump and Walker will never read it.

Foxconn may turn out great, and lead to better days for Wisconsin, but before auto-genuflecting toward profit-driven foreign firms that basically are focused on finding megatons of cheap water along with cheap wages in a market-handy, right-to-work state, someone in the public sector with professional skills had better begin doing their homework, assessing real physical risks against presumed economic benefits. Because once a plant like this opens, that kind of assessment may be too late.

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