Will Foxconn worsen flooding in the suburbs? No, Wisconsin says

As President Donald Trump and Wisconsin dignitaries gathered Thursday for the Foxconn groundbreaking, neighbors in Illinois were roiling about the massive development in Mount Pleasant, just 20 miles north of the border.

Their worries about the $10 billion liquid crystal display manufacturing complex have been building for months, with officials from Congress, the state, Lake and Cook counties, and towns along the Des Plaines River raising questions about flooding and environmental effects of the project.

Concerns about the millions of gallons of water the Taiwan-based company will siphon from Lake Michigan have dominated the debate. But lately, there's been a worry that hits even closer to the suburbs: Will the project and surrounding developments further increase flooding problems downstream?

FoxConn water worries

Flooding is certainly on the mind of suburban homeowners. Record rainfall has drenched the Chicago area since May, and thousands of suburban homes were damaged by floods a year ago.

"It's the combination of all that new pavement in that region that needs to be looked at in an analysis, not just Foxconn," said Mike Warner, executive director of the Lake County Stormwater Management Commission.

On Thursday, while Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and others were digging in with ceremonial gold shovels, U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin of Springfield and Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates and U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider of Deerfield sent a letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers urging its scrutiny of the development.

"Given the potential impact on an already flood-prone area of Illinois and Wisconsin's decision to waive state environmental regulations, we urge the Corps to play a more active oversight role in ensuring all laws and regulations are followed," they wrote.

As part of a potential $4.5 billion in state and local tax incentives used to land Foxconn, state lawmakers in Wisconsin waived some environmental regulations. But officials at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources argue the Foxconn development won't exacerbate flooding in Illinois and say they've got the facts to prove it.

"Foxconn is not getting a free environmental ride from the state of Wisconsin," spokesman James Dick said in an email.

Air quality regulations, stormwater control, hazardous waste, wastewater regulation and use of Great Lakes water will be no different, Wisconsin officials said. There will be some differences when it comes to wetlands, which hold water.

Foxconn is filling in nearly 17 acres of wetlands for its development. Instead of completing compensatory mitigation for the loss of wetlands, it's paying about $2 million in fees for filling the wetlands. That money is expected to be used for mitigation projects in the same areas, officials said.

Wisconsin officials also released a study this month that indicates the development won't cause more flooding in Illinois. According to an analysis by the Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, stormwater controls in the area will prevent downstream flooding.

"The village of Mount Pleasant stormwater ordinance is sufficient to address increased runoff rates and volumes from development of that portion of the (development) zone within the Des Plaines River watershed with no anticipated increase in downstream flood flows," the study concluded.

Lake County officials plan to seek information about the project in hopes of protecting tax dollars it's spent to minimize flooding problems.

"We've done a sizable amount of structure buyouts along the Des Plaines River and other storage projects," Warner said. "So anytime that you have an increase in volume of runoff, it should be looked at closely."

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