Rivian’s planned Georgia EV plant sparks local environmental scrutiny

Work on massive factory near Atlanta set to begin this spring

Residents near the planned $5 billion Rivian electric vehicle factory east of Atlanta have hired an environmental attorney to look at potential legal challenges, but they face long odds.

Local officials will vote in the coming weeks on rezoning the 2,000-acre property for industrial use. That would be one of the final steps to let Rivian begin construction, local development chief Shane Short said in an interview. Work is slated to start this spring on the site between the small cities of Social Circle and Rutledge.

A citizen group that appears to enjoy the support of hundreds if not thousands of residents is worried about possible contamination of local water and other environmental issues. The group has raised more than $150,000 for its legal fund, according to Rutledge resident Chas Moore, one of the organizers.

Rivian, which raised about $12 billion in a November initial public offering, has the strong backing of state and local development authorities. Gov. Brian Kemp has called the plant the largest single economic development project in state history.

Environmental groups such as the Sierra Club, Georgia Conservation Voters and the Georgia Wildlife Federation haven’t offered help to the citizen group. They support Rivian’s electric trucks, SUVs and vans as a way to reduce greenhouse gases and combat climate change. Sierra Club lobbyist Mark Woodall said electric vehicles are “the one thing that the Sierra Club and Georgia Power agree on.”

About 200 residents attended a board meeting of the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties in Madison on Jan. 25 to voice their opposition and press for more information.

“You’re playing on your phone, you’re not listening, you’re not making eye contact with us,” Rutledge resident Debbie Crowe told board members during the public portion of the meeting. “Who’s going to cover the cost of well testing so that people in this county have safe water to drink?”

Fanning concerns, the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission said in a Feb. 4 report that the Rivian project could contaminate the local water supply. “A plant of this size would negatively impact the groundwater recharge area by converting millions of square feet into impervious surfaces,” the report stated.

The local development authority says residents’ water won’t be negatively affected and points to two JDA-funded studies it shared publicly late last week.

In one study, Savannah engineering firm Thomas & Hutton suggested measures to limit Rivian’s impact on groundwater such as minimizing asphalt surfaces that permit rainwater to collect more pollutants, adding vegetation to filter pollutants out of rainwater and widening buffer zones along streams.

In the other JDA-funded study, Athens consulting firm Nutter & Associates concluded Rivian will have a “net-zero effect on local groundwater” because of the geology of the site and that mitigation measures are likely not needed.

“It’s ridiculous for people to think we’re going to put contaminated water in the ground,” said Short, executive director of the Walton County Development Authority and de facto JDA head. He added Rivian “must and will follow any local, state and federal laws regarding any type of waste.”

The JDA also circulated a letter of support for the Rivian project signed by about 40 local businesses, churches and government agencies.

Rivian said last month that “sustainability and conservation ... composes the core of our mission to preserve our world for future generations.”

Cox Enterprises, owner of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, owns a 4.7% stake in Rivian and supplies services to Rivian. 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.

The citizen group said Monday that authorities still need to share details on how Rivian will address wastewater treatment, solid waste disposal and other environmental issues. The group’s attorney, Donald Stack, said the community needs to evaluate “the potential effects of such a massive and unprecedented attempt to convert a rural pastoral community into a heavily industrialized urban center.”

The citizen group, Morgan Land, Sky & Water Preservation, has about 2,400 supporters, based on social media followers and its financial contributors, said Moore. He declined to provide more details on the group’s membership or its specific donors.

“I’m no one special. We’re just the little people,” Rutledge resident Carol Stephens Spencer said at the Jan. 25 meeting. “Please, Rivian, go away from here. We don’t want you.”

Staff writer Drew Kann contributed to this article

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