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Electric vehicle, plastic recycling plants join coal ash, Okefenokee Swamp as concerns

Verner Centennial Farm, proposed site of Rivian plant. (File/Photo courtesy of Madison-Morgan Conservancy.)

By David Pendered

Two big state-endorsed economic development projects are running into early opposition, indicating they could be set to join coal ash and the Okefenokee Swamp in the larger debate over Georgia’s environmental future.

Rivian site plan by JDA of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties. (Image via teslarati.com.)

There was a time in Georgia when the prospect of more than 7,600 new jobs would have garnered fairly strong support among nearby residents.

Initial reaction to the two latest proposals suggests a proportion of residents that’s more vocal, and perhaps larger, than in previous years may be wary about the environmental consequences of facilities that bring new jobs.

The two proposed facilities are to be located east of Atlanta and in south Macon.

Rivian, Inc. plans an automobile manufacturing plant for what it calls “electric adventure vehicles.” The plant would take up a site of 1,978 acres in Walton and Morgan counties, an hour east of Atlanta. An as-yet unstated number of construction jobs to build the planned $5 billion facility are to be followed by 7,500 permanent jobs. In 2024, workers are to start manufacturing up to 400,000 vehicles a year.

Concerns about light pollution from the plant, trucks and traffic and general growth are among the main points addressed in comments on the Facebook page, Rutledge GA Small But Special. the potential impact on their communities is evident in a site map made for the joint development authority involved in the deal, the JDA of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties.

The site map shows a 100-foot buffer between the distribution switchyard and houses. A new interchange is to be built with I-20. Two at-grade railroad crossings are contemplated on U.S. 278. The office and industrial space measures a total of 19.6 million square feet.

The Facebook page is trying to drum up attendance for a community-led meeting Thursday evening at the Philadelphia Baptist Church, located in Rutledge on Davis Academy Road. Davis Academy Road is one of two roads to be closed to accommodate the plant, according to the site plan.

This region is one of Georgia’s last rural outposts in the stretch south of Athens, between Atlanta and Augusta. During the Civil War, residents convinced Union Gen. William T. Sherman not to burn the town of Madison during his March to the Sea. In 2019, preservations lost their battle to reroute high-power transmission lines for the Facebook data center from crossing sections of Morgan County, dotted with historic sites, to serve the Facebook facility in southwest Morgan County, south of I-20.

One post on the Facebook page observes: “We need all the support we can get now to stop Rutledge and Morgan County from being turned into something similar to Rockdale County along I-20. This is farm country, not factory country!”

In Macon, Brightmark Plastics Renewal plans to build a plastics recycling facility in the southern part of the city. An as-yet unstated number of construction jobs related to a $680 million plant are to be followed by about 100 permanent jobs in engineering, maintenance and operations.

The project enjoyed widespread support when announced in June. Gov. Brian Kemp endorsed it, along with local officials and Pat Wilson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

Lester Miller, mayor of the consolidated City of Macon and Bibb County, rescinded his support for the project in a Jan. 7 letter addressed to Robby Fountain, chair of the Macon-Bibb Development Authority. WMAZ-TV, a CBS affiliate in Macon, broadcast a copy of the letter, which states in its entirety:

“As mayor of Macon-Bibb County, I am tasked with balancing the benefit of economic development with the health and safety concerns of the people we serve.

“After careful consideration of the proposed Brightmark project, I believe it is in the best interest of the people of Macon-Bibb County that we withdraw our support.

“While we should and will continue to support green energy economic development, and technical jobs, we cannot ignore the long-term safety concerns of this unproven process that have been raised in the last several weeks.”

Miller’s letter doesn’t mention the town of Juliette, located about 30 miles north of Macon.

Residents there have been the face in Georgia of the battle over the remediation of coal ash. This is the hazardous byproduct of coal burnt to create electricity. The U.S. EPA issued proposed regulations on coal ash last week that could impact the ongoing discussions between Georgia Power and state officials over storage of coal combustion residues.

Meanwhile, the state’s review of a proposed sand mine outside the edges of the Okefenokee Swamp continues to garner concern. The swamp was listed as a place in peril for the third consecutive year by the Georgia Water Coalition on its annual Dirty Dozen list, released Dec. 14, 2021. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is evaluating the application from Twin Pines Minerals, LLC to mine sand from a site outside the southeastern edge of the swamp.

Meanwhile, the shortage of labor to build and staff each facility does not appear to be addressed in public comments by Brightmark or Rivian.

The supply of labor is “extremely tight” in all or parts of six southeastern states. Companies report they’ve lessened educational or work experience requirements in order to hire workers, according to the Dec. 1, 2021, Beige Book of economic indicators released by the Atlanta Federal Reserve.

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David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.

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