Riverkeeper threatens to sue over Hyundai plant’s environmental impact

The complaint alleges that regulators failed to properly assess the environmental impacts of the EV and battery factory near Savannah
Construction progress on Hyundai Motor Group's 'Metaplant' near Savannah is shown on October 25, 2023. The $7.6 billion electric vehicle and battery plant is expected to begin production in early 2025.

Credit: Drew Kann

Credit: Drew Kann

Construction progress on Hyundai Motor Group's 'Metaplant' near Savannah is shown on October 25, 2023. The $7.6 billion electric vehicle and battery plant is expected to begin production in early 2025.

A Georgia conservation group warned two federal regulators this week that they could face a lawsuit over the environmental impacts of Hyundai Motor Group’s massive electric vehicle and battery factory if construction work is not paused.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper filed a notice of its intent to sue the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Treasury Department over allegations that the two government agencies failed to properly assess the environmental impacts of the $7.6 billion “Metaplant” near Savannah.

The factory is Georgia’s largest economic development project and will receive an estimated $1.8 billion in government incentives, including hundreds of millions for water infrastructure. Hyundai has said it could open as soon as October, several months ahead of schedule, and will eventually employ 8,500 people.

“We’re not trying to stop the growth,” said Ben Kirsch, legal director of the Ogeechee Riverkeeper. “We want to get out in front of it and make sure that the region grows in a responsible, sustainable way.”

The Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) and Savannah Harbor-Interstate 16 Corridor Joint Development Authority (JDA) said in a statement they “were disappointed” about the potential lawsuit, adding that the Hyundai site has undergone strenuous environmental review for the past decade.

Credit: Drew Kann/AJC

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Credit: Drew Kann/AJC

“This site has been under federal environmental review since 2014 and included several public comment periods,” SEDA and the JDA said in a joint statement. “We are not aware of any other megasite in the country that has garnered more review from the (Army Corps).”

Hyundai and the Georgia Department of Economic Development, the state agency that helmed the factory project, deferred comments to the two local agencies. The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment, while the Army Corps declined to comment on potential litigation.

“The Corps’ Regulatory Program is committed to protecting the Nation’s aquatic resources and navigation capacity, while allowing reasonable development through fair and balanced decisions,” Ben Garrett, a spokesperson for the Army Corps’ Savannah District, wrote in a statement.

Local groundwater

The region where the factory is located includes several counties that have legal limits on how much fresh water they can draw from the Floridan Aquifer that supplies much of Georgia, Alabama, Florida and South Carolina. Residents and conservationists are concerned about dropping ground water levels and saltwater intrusion.

“There used to be springs all throughout this area that have dried up over the years,” Kirsch said. “There’s a lot of local concern.”

Despite the withdrawal limits, which have been in place for nearly 20 years, the Corps issued a permit for Hyundai to dredge and fill wetlands that said the huge project would not require additional water withdrawals.

“The volume of potable water that would be required by the development is unknown, but it would be reasonable to assume that the Bryan County supply is adequate to meet the need of the proposed project,” the permit says. “When considering all aspects of the proposed project, the Corps has determined that the proposed project would have a negligible effect to municipal and private water supplies.”

ELLABELL, GA  - FEB. 21, 2024: A water tower under construction at the edge of the Hyundai Metaplant site that will be used to hold groundwater pumped from Bulloch County, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024, Ellabell, Ga. (AJC Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

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Credit: Stephen B. Morton for The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Not only were the water problems well known, but Hyundai and the state knew something the public didn’t during the permit review period, Kirsch said. In a confidential agreement from months earlier, the parties had agreed on a list of publicly-funded “improvements,” including four new groundwater supply wells that the Riverkeeper says were not included in the plans submitted to the Corps.

The Riverkeeper’s complaint says the Corps improperly issued the permit based on incomplete and outdated information, and that it failed to do proper due diligence on the company’s claims. It says the Treasury was required to do its own environmental review before distributing pandemic relief funds for the project. A Bryan County official previously told the AJC the project received $246 million in grant funds.

SEDA and the JDA said they’ve been working with local governments and the state on how to serve the Megasite’s water needs. They contend it is not the Army Corps responsibility to evaluate drinking water access, since that falls under the jurisdiction of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD).

The EPD is in the process of considering permit applications for four wells in neighboring Bulloch County that would allow the Hyundai factory to withdraw about 6.5 million gallons of water per day from the region’s main source of drinking water. SEDA and the JDA said those permit evaluations will include a 30-day public comment period, which “would be the appropriate forum for the Ogeechee Riverkeeper to address their concerns” rather than the courts.

Governor Brian Kemp, who oversaw the distribution of the Treasury money in Georgia, did not respond to a request for comment. Previously, the governor lauded the $4.8 billion the state received from the 2021 American Rescue Plan Act, which listed water, sewer and stormwater as eligible expenses. Grant recipients in Georgia were selected by a committee assembled by the governor that included leaders from the EPD, state Department of Natural Resources, Georgia Environmental Finance Authority as well as lawmakers, mostly Republican, according to a statement.

The Riverkeeper’s notice of intent to sue has a 60-day deadline for the agencies to respond by halting construction to perform environmental review. Kirsch said his organization still hopes to avoid a lawsuit.

A note of disclosure

This coverage is supported by a partnership with Green South Foundation and Journalism Funding Partners. You can learn more and support our climate reporting by donating at ajc.com/donate/climate/