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Rivian project hit with state violation, local lawsuit in dirt pollution controversy

A flow of mud on the Rivian site on Oct. 13 that caused pollution in a creek and a neighboring property, as documented by Georgia Environmental Protection Division staff during an inspection that led to a notice of violation of state water regulations and the permit. The earthmover is cleaning up the dirt and the fencing in the background had already been repaired, according to EPD.

By John Ruch

Dirt pollution issues with the Rivian electric vehicle plant site violated environmental regulations, according to the state, and have triggered a resident lawsuit seeking to halt the project.

Project critics previously questioned why grading on the site is proceeding despite a court blocking its huge financial incentive deal and some permits still pending. And they warned that grading contractor Plateau Excavation – now a defendant in the new lawsuit – was already being sued for alleged dirt pollution from an adjacent Facebook data center project.

“I was fearful that this excavation company, the lowest bidder for the project, would continue to have problems,” said JoEllen Artz of Morgan Land, Sky & Water Preservation, the group behind a “No to Rivian” campaign.

Dirt pollution in the Rawlings Branch creek on Oct. 13 that was caused by runoff from the Rivian site, as documented by EPD staff.

The co-developers on Rivian’s behalf are the Georgia Department of Economic Development (GDEcD) and the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton Counties (JDA), which have touted the environmentally conscious ethos of Rivian and the project. Spokespeople for those agencies said they could not immediately provide comment. Plateau did not immediately respond to a comment request.

The plan for Rivian’s $5 billion, 2,000-acre plant, announced late last year by Gov. Brian Kemp, has drawn local controversy for secretiveness and the industrializing of a largely rural area in Morgan and Walton counties, about 40 miles east of Atlanta. Outrage intensified when GDEcD and the JDA took over the project, in part to take it out of the hands of local government zoning and regulatory review.

Last month, Artz’s opposition group scored a major victory with a court ruling that a state-arranged incentive deal for tax-exempt bonds was unwarranted for an unproven startup company and that proposed property tax breaks were unlawful. GDEcD and the JDA are considering an appeal. Just days before the court decision, the agencies began site clearance by avoiding wetlands and waterways while awaiting permitting under the federal Clean Water Act and state statutes. The agencies have not directly explained why they chose to proceed with clearance and grading despite the incentives issue and until permitting is complete.

Artz and other residents soon reported large amounts of dust blowing off the site. And on Oct. 13, sediment flowed off the site into the Rawlings Branch creek and onto a neighboring property. GDEcD and the JDA previously said that runoff was due to “significant” rainfall that overwhelmed fencing installed in accordance with best practices and regulations.

State environmental violation

But the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) has ruled that was not the case. In an Oct. 20 “notice of violation” letter to the GDEcD and an Oct. 21 internal memo about site inspections, EPD officials said the runoff was caused by a “loose pile” of sediment from a detention pond construction area that had “no stabilization or measures taken in preparation of the rain to prevent it from being washed off site.” It took only 1.25 inches of rain for the sediment to overwhelm a perimeter fence.

EPD’s notice of violation said that was a “failure to [sic] proper design, installation, and maintenance of BMPs [best management practices],” which constitutes “noncompliance” with  state water regulations and the grading permit. The EPD ordered: “All initial phase perimeter controls, including detention ponds, are to be completed before any additional mass grading not associated with the construction and operation of these Best Management Practices.”

EPD said Plateau had already cleaned up the sediment in the creek and spread hay on the adjacent property to prevent further runoff. The perimeter fence was repaired and the area was graded to prevent a repeat of that particular runoff.

It appears the local complaints about airborne dust also have some merit. EPD spokesperson Laura Williams said that the agency “also determined that the permittee [Plateau] is taking steps to install additional dust control measures at the site.”

Local lawsuit

The day after EPD’s notice of violation, five Morgan County residents filed a lawsuit in state Superior Court about allegations of dirt pollution and improper permitting. The defendants include the JDA, Plateau, and Morgan County and its Board of Commissioners and planning director.

A haze of dust allegedly caused by dirt blowing off the Rivian plant site on Oct. 6, 2022. (Photo by Morgan Land, Sky & Water Preservation.)

The suit alleges the plaintiffs are suffering and will continue to suffer impacts from the project: airborne dust; silt, sludge and contaminants entering water; increase of noise and light pollution; increase in truck and rail traffic; interference with such agricultural activities as cattle-raising; and decreased property values.

Plaintiff Edward Clay specifically alleges “repeated” pollution of his swimming pool from dust, and that sediment has entered two wells on his property, resulting in “his potable water supply becoming contaminated.”

The lawsuit also challenges the GDEcD and JDA assertions that state ownership of the land trumps local zoning and regulations because it is being developed on behalf of a private, for-profit company’s commercial use. The lawsuit seeks the court to declare that Morgan County has regulatory authority over the project and order the County to enforce those codes. The lawsuit also seeks to block the GDEcD and the JDA from proceeding with land disturbance until that local review is complete.

When asked for comment, County Manager Adam Mestres said the County had not yet been served with the lawsuit complaint.

Among the other plaintiffs are Rev. Alan Jenkins and A. Felton Jenkins III. The Jenkins are the children of Julie Jenkins, who is a plaintiff in the separate lawsuit against Plateau alleging dirt pollution from the Facebook project. Alan Jenkins earlier this month circulated a press release warning about the possibility of dirt pollution from the Rivian site given Plateau’s involvement in the lawsuit related to the Facebook project.

The Jenkins family is among the critics of the Rivian project. They also sold about 40 acres of land to the JDA for the plant for nearly $2.8 million, though they say they did so only because the authority threatened that the Georgia Department of Transportation would take it by eminent domain anyway.

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3 Comments

  1. Pam October 25, 2022 9:06 pm

    So nice to read an accurate report on the problems already encountered by the moving forward of the JDA and the State in the excavation of our zoned agricultural legacy farm land here in Rutledge, AFTER Our Communities Oppose RIVIAN heavy industrial auto plant won our first lawsuit against the JDA and the State over the bond issue to pay for all this for profit’s land without collecting any property or inventory tax back to the counties for 25 years! .We citizens were left entirely out of the process! All our rights were violated as we were treated like “obstacles in the way” for a free ride for this for profit company paid for by none other than we the “irrelevant” taxpayers! You, if you live in the STATE of Georgia are paying for this destruction of everything truly green in our agricultural zoned community.. Did anyone tell you before they said “Done Deal”? They didn’t tell us either and threw the project to the state to bypass all our local zoning laws in what they call, a get around of our Constitution! We begged their consideration after this deal was done, in back rooms, closed doors, totally in secret covered over by NDA’s. We are well dependent here in our community of Rutledge and this area of Morgan County and adjoining Walton county to be affected too. We have been given no advance warnings and 0 consideration. No permits or EPD studies or even a plan for the 20 million sq ft 7 story high factory they are forcing on us, against our will! They did not even have a plan to show us at the one community design and environmental meeting in another town, trying to make it difficult for working folks from Rutledge to attend. But attend we did with our facts about this financially unstable for profit “start up “ RIVIAN Mfg, A proven as “risky business” being given free land paid for by the taxpayers of this state, 2003 acres of prime legacy farmland . This was done with a $1.5 Billion dollar giveaway of our hard earned tax dollars with the deal first announced by our Governor on TV as a “Done Deal”. This was announced on Dec 16, 2021 without any citizens knowledge and no consideration for our air, our well water or our wildlife habitats and Conservancy. None given for the American Bald Eagle flying overhead or the three natural springs with mud running into them as pictured and described in this article!. Plus numerous ponds, farmland actively being farmed with hay to be cut since the announcement. It is our worst nightmare coming true as citizens, business owners, widows, families, farmers (the few left behind here now after others, entire families, siblings with their own homes on the land they grew up on. They were all, all who stood in the way, bullied off their land (with threat of eminent domain)by the State and JDA. Yet their lawyer claims all that has been done in secret or otherwise is legal. I’m glad the judges and the courts have said otherwise and ruled in our favor. The judges statement after court, scolded the JDA and the State for the processes they have used against us and for not doing their due diligence on this failing company first, before freely giving our tax dollars to them. This great amount, over $1 billion was freely given, plus $125 million extra for “good PR. PR they now use against us citizens, claiming we are just a “handful”. Our Opposition page now numbers 3500 and the tiny town of Rutledge closest to the site, where many of us live, has a population of around 1000 people! The Governor also threw in another $125 million for a training and service center and they weren’t through yet! This for profit “risky business” that has cost billions of dollars in losses to Amazons bottom line and to Ford who had a member on the board, they resigned from the board and took what was left of their billions and decided to build EV pu trucks alone, no more partnership here. Even their biggest individual supporter George Soros bailed on them losing billions of his own wealth. We citizens whose quality of life is being graded away daily, as I type this, have come together as a community, pooled our resources, our own money to fight the State, the county and the JDA for our way of life and things necessary to survive like clean well water! . We hired the BEST attorney on environmental issues we could find! If you go to our site on FB, #no2rivian #OurCommunitiesOpposeRIVIANassemblyplant , you can see for yourselves a video of a senate hearing in Georgia on JDA’s where a representative of one of these JDA’s brags about these small rural communities not having the finances to fight the State and the county. He goes on to say these citizens can’t afford a “Sho Nuff” lawyer to get around JDA’s and states who he freely admitted, use the process of calling a for profit non taxed companies a usufruct, giving them the advantage of no property or inventory taxes for 25 years! The county and the State will bear the cost of building new schools (we only have one) and they claim to be bringing 8500 “so called” local jobs! This to a community and a county with unemployment so
    Low, we already have two jobs from any field including manufacturing for every unemployed person who wants one. We have help wanted signs in every business and on the chain link fences around our industry’s. I own a business in Rutledge and I’ve never been offered that! We the citizens would be left with our rural agricultural legacy farmland, actively being destroyed, along with our best sources of clean well water and the soil to filter that water clean. This is being scraped away, even while the court has already ruled against the JDA and the State on process and denied the bond to pay for it with these illegal use processes! The judge in her ruling scolded the STATE and the JDA for not doing their due diligence on looking into the financials of a company everyone in the EV industry fully expects to fail. Elon Musk advised RIVIAN, who has only created 13,000 EVs at their first US plant in Normal, Illinois in their short 2 1/2 year history! This is a plant with capacity of 25,000 EV Autos a year. Every vehicle they have managed to produce so far and deliver, is at this time under a full recall. People have waited two years for these and now they are being recalled in their entirety! Good luck to those owners as they don’t use dealerships. They sell direct! Mobile service techs mean more waiting to get your steering assembly repaired that was, as I understand the recall, put on backwards causing possible loss of control at any time! Thank you again for telling the facts. We are so tired of being called a handful of opponents when we can fill a giant barn shoulder to shoulder to be updated by our “Sho Nuff” Great Attorney! Stay tuned and please keep us in your prayers as we are a prayerful and peaceful community. We come in peace and we don’t back down! Ever! As many as possible drive to the Jasper County Courthouse to ask why they are grading? And to make our concerns known. We got NO ANSWERS! But we did get yelled at, in my case one of the JDA members yelled you have 3500 people in your FB group but there is only a handful of you in the Land Trust opposing us. Let him try yelling that to a giant barn full of our Opposition and see what kind of response he gets! Another of our members of the Opposition was yelled at by the same JDA member who accused his family of developing another area in Gwinette County which I know is untrue because I know the family. And I heard them discussing the way they were treated at the time and saw the tears like our own widows and farmers and families forced off their land have shared. We are the first community to challenge the JDA and the State on their “process” of removing “obstacles” like citizens when they want to entice a “risky business” to our agricultural zoned land as spelled out in writing, in our 2017-2036 Comprehensive Land Use Plan where our citizens approved this plan and the zoning to remain agricultural zoned, through the corse of this plan until a new one replaces it by citizen approval in 2036! Welcome to how RURAL communities are being treated nationwide, anywhere thes rouge JDA’s are allowed to do anything they want to remove citizens in the way of their secret deals and plans. Their attorney at one of the meetings like we attended today, only to get yelled at and one threatened to be removed by deputies they called in for his “passionate” questioning. We, this community who strongly oppose RIVIAN in Rutledge stood up to them as he did and said I’m finished, I’m only here now to listen. He was allowed to stay. We, much to their displeasure, do know our rights as citizens and we stood up with our member for his rights today as we do to those who choose to destroy us. We had every right to be in that room after saying the pledge of our allegiance to our US Flag . We will not be removed. And we will not stay silent when it comes to fighting peaceably within the courts for our every right to live on the land we own and NOT be removed for a FOR PROFIT heavy industrial auto manufacturing plant. We stand together. As we pray together.Report

    Reply
  2. Nicole October 27, 2022 1:59 pm

    Thank you for your accurate and unbiased coverage of this story. When locals questioned the damage this project could do to nearby waterways, wells, homes, and livestock, we were told that “of course” the JDA and Rivian would follow all EPD and EPA requirements to the letter. They have only started the grading, and already have proven that not only can “accidents happen”, but they did NOT follow all requirements. Sadly, if this continues, it is only the beginning of the pollution and problems, to the environment and our community.Report

    Reply
  3. Edwin October 27, 2022 5:40 pm

    There is absolutely no excuse for a huge silt runoff into a local stream. The JDA has not secured a Section 404 permit and has rushed forward with an ill-advised phased construction permit that SPECIFICALLY FORBIDS THEM TO GRADE AROUND ANY SPRINGS OR STREAMS…or to allow ANY damage to a steam or waterway.
    Also, it appears the JDA is woefully unprepared and not “certified” to inspect the Plateau erosion control measures.
    I would answer that given the wind and water born pollution allowed in the first 30 days under this provisional permit…the EPD needs to issue a stop work order as required by law. This stop work order should stay in place until the JDA hires “certified inspectors” to oversee Plateau’s work.
    This recent violation was not a trivial matter and should be considered a breach of contract …EPD fines and stop work orders are appropriate here.
    Where were the JDA inspectors? Why did the JDA not report this to the EPD?
    Plain incompetence? Or deliberate negligence?Report

    Reply

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