GOP bill would end Wisconsin wetland development permits

(Wisconsin DNR photo)

MADISON, Wis. — Wisconsin Republicans are pushing to allow developers to build on state wetlands without any oversight after passing a $3 billion incentives package for a Foxconn Technology Group plant exempting the facility from a host of environmental regulations.

The Foxconn incentives bill allows the Taiwanese company to fill wetlands without permits. Conservationists and Republican supporters alike predicted the legislation could pave the way for much broader environmental rollbacks after the bill’s critics complained other businesses don’t get such perks.

Estimates of how many of Wisconsin’s 5 million or so wetland acres fall under state jurisdiction vary from 10 percent to 30 percent. The rest are under federal jurisdiction because they’re generally part of navigable waters such as Lake Superior or the Mississippi or Wisconsin rivers. The state wetlands, in contrast, are typically isolated swamps and bogs.

Republicans have long bristled at DNR permit requirements for filling state wetlands, saying the process slows business expansion. Sen. Roger Roth and Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke introduced a bill Friday that would eliminate the permit system. Developers would still have to abide by requirements that call for them to create 1.2 acres of wetlands for every acre filled

“We’ve been hearing for years from homeowners and developers from every corner of the state about how onerous the process is to get permits to fill (wetlands), how time-consuming it is, how costly it is,” Steineke said in a phone interview. “These aren’t high-quality wetlands that serve a broader function.”

Scott Manley, a lobbyist for Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, the state’s largest business group, said in August that the Foxconn bill could provide a “proof of concept” for regulatory reform. The group issued a statement Monday praising the Roth-Steineke bill.

Steineke and Roth aide Angela Roidt both said they had been exploring wetland permit exemptions before the Foxconn bill surfaced. But Steineke said that bill gave them an extra push.

“When you had legislators and other members of the public coming out saying they’d prefer we do these exemptions for everybody, not just one business, it was encouraging,” he said.

Erin O’Brien, policy programs director for the Wisconsin Wetlands Association, said she was sure the Foxconn incentives played a role in developing the broader wetland bill. She called the new bill the Republicans’ “end game” for wetland development.

Wetlands serve as natural retention ponds, she said; destroying them leaves communities open to flooding. Even though state law requires rebuilding more wetlands than acres lost, there’s no guarantee the new wetlands will be located in the same area or that the new wetlands will be as good as the lost acres, she said.

“It’s unfortunate that what these (legislators) are choosing to do is eliminate a permitting system that we think balances wetland protection and development and replaces it with a system that allows developers to essentially pay to pave wetlands,” she said.

The bill’s prospects look good. Aides for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald didn’t immediately reply to emails, but Steineke and Roth have considerable clout in the Legislature. Steineke is the second most powerful member of the Assembly behind Vos and is one of the speaker’s closest allies. Roth is president of the Senate.

The measure is the second major environmental rollback Republicans have proposed in as many weeks. Reps. Jesse Kremer and Cody Horlacher and Sen. Duey Stroebel, all Republicans, introduced a bill on Sept. 20 that would wipe out all state air pollution rules that go beyond federal regulations. The DNR would be able to write new state rules going forward but they would be effective for only a decade.

In a memo seeking co-sponsors the legislators wrote that the DNR regulates nearly 300 more hazardous air pollutants than required by federal law and less than a third of them are actually emitted.

“These failed bureaucratic policies and red tape create a ripple effect that leaves businesses and hardworking taxpayers stranded on an island of artificial marketplace regulation,” the lawmakers wrote.

DNR spokesman James Dick couldn’t immediately verify the scope of the state’s air pollution regulation.

Sarah Berry, a lobbyist for environmental advocacy group Clean Wisconsin, warned the federal government mainly focuses on pollutants that pose problems nationwide. Wisconsin’s standards reflect the state’s unique situation, she said.

“A full-scale repeal of our state-specific protections could have tremendous negative consequences for the health and well-being of people living in Wisconsin communities across the state,” she said in an email.

The Foxconn bill didn’t include any air pollution exemptions.

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