Residents slam state’s handling of Rivian project at public meeting

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The company has not filed applications for any environmental permits yet, state agency says

Members of a state committee got an earful Monday evening from upset residents who live near the site of the planned $5 billion Rivian electric vehicle factory, many saying they don’t trust state officials over the secrecy surrounding the project.

Tensions were high as residents, many wearing anti-Rivian buttons and stickers, had their first chance to speak to one of the committees the state established to gather public input.

Monday’s meeting was supposed to address site design and environmental concerns, but several speakers complained they still know few details about Rivian’s plans four months after the company’s intentions were officially revealed.

Residents received few answers in the two-hour meeting.

“This committee is supposedly tasked with ensuring compliance with local, state and federal ordinances, but we don’t even know what the project looks like yet,” said Jaclyn Brass, an attorney representing opposition group Morgan Land, Sky and Water Preservation Inc.

Rivian announced it was coming to Georgia last December and plans to break ground this summer. The company has said it hopes to begin vehicle production in 2024 at the factory slated to be built along I-20 about an hour east of Atlanta between the towns of Rutledge and Social Circle. The factory is expected to employ 7,500 workers.

State leaders have hailed Rivian, which Gov. Brian Kemp has called the state’s biggest economic development project. Some local business and school officials have also expressed support, but local resident opposition to the plant has built since it was announced.

ExploreFebruary 2022: Georgia state government steps in to move Rivian EV plant forward

Many speakers Monday voiced concerns about possible well water contamination, light pollution, and the disruption of wildlife habitats and farmland for heavy industry.

However, the overarching theme expressed was a deep distrust of the process that brought the plant to rural northeast Georgia and a fear that it could irreparably change their small towns.

“This is not a little deal,” said Edwin Snell, a resident of nearby Oconee County. “And to have it sprung on us after all these NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) and secret meetings, can you not understand why we don’t trust you?”

John Eunice, the deputy director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said that he did not know when Rivian will file applications for the various environmental permits it needs to construct its facility. But Eunice vowed that they would be vetted rigorously.

The meeting at the Athens Technical College campus in Monroe drew dozens and was the first of four planned of the site design and environmental committee. The state plans four meetings each with three other committees tasked with examining quality of life, workforce and local business engagement issues.

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

The committees are structured to accept public remarks in the first hearing, the second meetings are designed as working groups, before a third meeting where public comment again will be heard. The committees are expected to complete their work in their fourth meetings.

State officials had said they would allot only 30 minutes for public comment on Monday, but residents spoke for about an hour-and-a-half.

A Rivian executive was present via video conference but did not speak during the hearing.

A spokesperson for Rivian said the meeting was a valuable opportunity for the company to gather input and committed to sharing details of their plans for the site once they are complete and “meet our own high design and environmental standards.” They also said they would host a series of informational events later this year to provide more details on their sustainability goals and other aspects of the project.

In February, the state of Georgia took control of the Rivian site and withdrew local rezoning applications, smoothing the path for the project to move forward. The environment and site design committee that convened Monday — along with three others panels — were created to solicit public input after the state stepped in.

The Rivian plant has become a hot-button issue in Walton and Morgan and surrounding counties. Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging Kemp for the Republican nomination, has also tried to make it a wedge issue in the governor’s race. But it’s unclear if the issue will gain traction statewide ahead of the May 24 primary.

There are three more meetings on the project’s environmental impact and design scheduled for next month.

Dates have not been set for meetings of the three other committees.

Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, owns about a 4% stake in Rivian and supplies services to it. Sandy Schwartz, a Cox executive who oversees the AJC, is on Rivian’s board of directors and holds stock personally. He does not take part in the AJC’s coverage of Rivian.

ExploreUpcoming meetings on the Rivian project