How an electric truck factory became a lightning rod in Georgia

It’s billed as the largest economic development project in Georgia’s history, an electric vehicle factory that could grow five times the size of the Pentagon and produce up to 400,000 emission-free trucks a year.

The plant, to be built by upstart electric carmaker Rivian, is being heralded by many as a $5 billion transformational investment that will invigorate the local economy with 7,500 new green jobs and help accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy.

It also created an unlikely pairing, bringing together Rivian, a California company committed to fighting climate change, and Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, with the goal of bringing electric vehicle production to an area where gas-guzzling pickup trucks dominate the road.

But in recent months, the project has become entangled in the kind of partisan politics that runs through many aspects of American life. Opponents have held rallies, organized online, dabbled in conspiracy theories and even threatened local officials.

And beyond the political wrangling, the factory debate is emblematic of the broader tensions plaguing the environmental movement, with the need to build new emissions-free infrastructure clashing with the age-old impulse to preserve untouched land.

“It’s a story unfolding with solar installations, wind farms and renewable energy transmission lines across the country,” said Michael Burger, executive director of the University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. of Columbia. “It will always be a case-by-case question whether the compromise is viable, and sometimes NIMBYism will prevail.”

Opponents cite a range of concerns. Some fear that the plant will contaminate groundwater. Others disapprove of the lucrative public incentives offered to Rivian. Many fear that the huge facility will alter the bucolic character of the area, increasing light pollution, speeding up traffic and spurring further development.

And now the movement to shut down the Rivian plant has spilled over into the race for governor of Georgia.

Opponents have turned their anger on Governor Kemp, who is up for re-election this year, and have found a sympathetic ally in former Sen. David Perdue, who is challenging Governor Kemp in the Republican primary.

On March 1, Mr. Perdue held a rally in Rutledge, about 80 miles east of Atlanta, near the site of the planned plant. He was introduced by opposition group leaders and focused his remarks on why the Rivian plant was a bad fit for the community and how, he said, Governor Kemp had sold out. to special interests.

Addressing a few hundred local residents in a leafy park, Mr Perdue invoked George Soros, the prominent Democratic donor whose hedge fund holds $2 billion in Rivian stock and who is a frequent target of conservatives.

“We can grow the economy without selling out and giving our taxes to people like George Soros,” Mr Perdue said to cheers. “We can invest in rural Georgia without kicking out our communities.”

Representatives for Governor Kemp and Rivian said they were sensitive to community concerns and that the site selection and creation of the incentive program were all done correctly.

“People worry any time their community is affected,” said Bert Brantley, Governor Kemp’s deputy chief of staff and one of the officials who helped lure Rivian to the state. “We don’t dismiss it or take it lightly. It’s a real impact that people are going to feel. They certainly deserve to have their questions answered.

James Chen, Rivian’s vice president of public policy, said concerns about the plant’s impact on the environment were misplaced and the community should celebrate the arrival of new jobs in the clean economy.

“This is a leading American company in technology and innovation,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re a green company and we want to do it in an environmentally friendly way.”

Yet these assurances have so far done little to calm some residents.

JoEllen Artz, a 74-year-old retiree who lives near the site and is one of the organizers of efforts to block the plant, said she believes it will destroy the local ecosystem and contaminate the aquifer in a community where most homes use well water.

“This company that makes green products is going to destroy what took Mother Nature millions of years to put together,” said Ms. Artz, a Republican who supports Mr. Perdue’s campaign to become governor.

The roughly 2,000-acre site where Rivian plans to build its plant is largely undeveloped. There’s a 200-year-old house on the property, which the company can help relocate, and residents hunt in the woods.

Some Democrats also oppose the factory. Jeanne Dufort, a local real estate broker, attended the rally for Mr. Perdue wearing a T-shirt declaring her support for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

“We’re not red or blue,” said Ms. Dufort, who has lived in the area for 21 years and said she fears the plant will irrevocably transform the area’s small-town feel. “We have carefully defined what we want this community to be, and this is not it.”

Other residents worry that Rivian, which went public in November with a valuation of nearly $70 billion but has seen its stock plummet since then, could go bankrupt and leave the community with a vacant industrial site. Last week, Rivian reported revenue of $55 million and a net loss of $4.7 billion for the prior year, sending the company’s stock plummeting.

Another source of contention is the incentive program offered by the state at Rivian. Governor Kemp has allocated $125 million in his proposed budget for land and training costs associated with the plant, and state and local municipalities are expected to give Rivian hundreds of millions of dollars in tax relief in coming years.

“If they’re going to give $125 million to a California company, I should have the same option as a small business owner,” said Chas Moore, a partner at an auto repair shop. “Government should not be picking winners and losers in private industry.”

Others expressed more general skepticism about the viability of electric vehicles.

Ray Austin, who owns a landscaping business and attended Mr Perdue’s rally, said even the most powerful battery-powered trucks couldn’t carry all the equipment he needed for long days on the road. “I will never go electric on a vehicle because I can’t,” he said.

And Dena Astin, a kindergarten teacher, said she was concerned about potential pollutants in lithium batteries used to power electric vehicles. “There are problems with electric cars, just like there are problems with gasoline cars,” she said.

But in Rutledge, the antipathy for the Rivian factory went beyond mere localism not in my backyard, sometimes veering into conspiracy.

Bruce LeVell, a Georgia businessman and adviser to former President Donald J. Trump, who introduced Mr. Perdue at the rally, touted the project as an effort by Democrats to sway the vote in a Republican-majority county .

“We discovered that Soros had a huge amount of money to support this project,” Mr. LeVell said in an interview with One America News, the far-right television network. “We don’t need George Soros involved in anything concerning Georgia.”

The protests sometimes turned vitriolic. At a public meeting with a local economic development group that supported the project, Edwin Snell, who lives nearby, excoriated the officials, took off his red baseball cap and kicked them. “It’s a rural area,” he said to cheers. “It’s not an industrial dump.”

A Facebook group of more than 3,000 members became a clearinghouse for negative stories about Rivian and Governor Kemp, and commentators occasionally launched personal attacks on local officials involved in the project.

Shane Short, executive director of the Walton County Development Authority, said he and his family were threatened online, prompting him to forgo a planned public meeting.

“Some people say things they don’t mean when they’re angry or anxious,” said Mr Short, who added he didn’t believe the plant would change the character of the community.

The kind of problem Mr. Short has faced has caused residents in favor of the project to keep a low profile. A recent poll by the Georgia Chamber, a pro-business group, found that two out of three area residents who knew about the project supported it.

“We don’t think it’s going to change the small-town feel of our community,” Mr. Short said, adding that the plant would be a boon to the local economy. “We anticipate many people in our communities will go to work for Rivian.”

Mr Chen said Rivian plans to mitigate its impact on the region, including using recycled water rather than well water in its manufacture, minimizing light pollution and integrating buildings into the landscape. .

“We believe that we will have no impact on drinking water aquifers,” he said.

Still, critics of the company are fighting back. They used GoFundMe to raise nearly $20,000 to support their campaign and hire legal help.

But as fierce as the opposition to the plant is, there is no easy way to stop it. Governor Kemp’s budget is expected to be approved and construction on the site is expected to begin this summer. Rivian plans to start producing trucks there in 2024.

Even some opponents of the factory acknowledge that, like it or not, one of the largest electric vehicle factories in the world could soon be in their backyard.

“It’s going to require political pressure on the governor, or the court of public opinion, or Rivian’s removal,” Ms. Dufort said. “It’s the only plan I see.”

Richard Fausset contributed reporting from Rutledge, Ga.

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