On a quiet Sunday afternoon in the small town of Rutledge, Georgia, over 100 people opposing Rivian Automotive, an up-and-coming electric vehicle manufacturer, gathered in a community effort to protest the California-based company’s expansion into their neighborhood.
The Sept. 11 rally, organized by members of the thousands-large Facebook group “Our Communities Oppose Rivian Assembly Plant,” was held in a barn just two miles from the 2,000-acre site of Rivian’s plant, which is supported by over $5 billion worth of investment.
Rivian, Hyundai and Korean battery recycler SungEel HiTech Co. are all examples of prominent EV businesses flocking to Georgia. Gov. Brian P. Kemp, using tax cuts and incentive packages worth millions of dollars to draw in such companies, is determined to secure Georgia’s foothold as a manufacturing powerhouse in the flourishing EV market.Why It’s Newsworthy: New initiatives to bring the electric vehicle industry into Northeast Georgia could strengthen the economy in rural communities near Athens, but could also harm rural communities’ ecosystems and way of life.
Once Rivian begins production in 2024, officials estimate that about 400,000 vehicles per year could be manufactured, creating about 7,500 new jobs in the largely agricultural towns of Rutledge and Social Circle.
Not all residents in the area, however, are happy about Rivian’s presence.
Local politicians, community activists and a team of environmental lawyers all joined the crew of speakers at the Sept. 11 rally. JoEllen Artz, a No2Rivian group member, urged the crowd to donate to the group’s legal efforts as they prepare to file lawsuits against the company.
“This is David and Goliath, and David still has a stack of stones and a good slingshot, but Goliath doesn’t need to know how many stones David has,” Artz said.
Legal Issues Threaten Expansion
No2Rivian has threatened lawsuits against the Joint Development Authority of Jasper, Morgan, Newton and Walton counties, the board owning the site where Rivian’s plant will be located, for months. Their legal strategy includes fighting the JDA’s practice of incentivizing Rivian through means such as payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT payments, which could exempt the company from any personal or real property taxes. Recently, however, Rivian and its supporters suffered a major blow to their progress at the hands of the Morgan County Superior Court.
On Sept. 29, Morgan County Superior Court Judge Brenda Trammell ruled against Rivian and the JDA when she refused to grant a bond agreement that would allow Rivian to avoid millions of dollars in property taxes. Rivian and the JDA plan to appeal Trammell’s decision, but until the bonds are granted, construction on the site has been put on hold.
Trammell confirmed in her decision that “the State did no analysis as to the impact the Rivian plant would have on the local communities and the additional expenses of government services” and asserted that Rivian should pay normal property taxes to support healthy growth and increased infrastructure in the rural communities around it.
Morgan County politician and No2Rivian group member Blake McCormack cites reasons such as disturbance of the natural ecosystem, air, water, and light pollution, and increased urban sprawl and traffic as reasons why Rivian’s presence in rural towns could do more harm than good. McCormack, a member of the Republican party, plans to run for Morgan County District 2 Commissioner in the upcoming midterm elections. Andy Ainslie, Morgan County District 2’s current Commissioner and JDA Vice President, will not be seeking another term.
“[The government] thinks that you can destroy this environment as long as you save another one somewhere else,” says McCormack. “It doesn’t make sense for us…we have some of the lowest unemployment in the state. Nobody has been able to sit down and show me what the benefit to the community will be.”
University of Georgia environmental economist Susana Ferreira agrees that while the plant would “certainly help” the community’s economy, its potential to impact locals’ way of life could be great.
“There are going to be local impacts, that’s pretty clear. As a neighbor, I wouldn’t be happy about the increased traffic and pollution, but no matter what, it’s going to be in somebody’s backyard,” said Ferreira.
Chas Moore, a Rutledge resident and administrator of the “Our Communities Oppose Rivian Assembly Plant” group, understands the business incentive but still opposes the plant.
“We’re business owners and we understand growth. This is an area of entrepreneurs, but there’s just no infrastructure to protect something of this scale,” Moore said.
Potential Environmental Impact
A recent Development of Regional Impact report done by the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission cautioned that hazardous waste could be released as a byproduct of Rivian’s manufacturing, and advised that extra safety measures be implemented to protect the environment.
The report also found that 92% of the plant’s site is located in a “conservation area,” and that construction may impact drinking water quality and harm surrounding wetlands. The JDA, however, contends that all appropriate measures are being taken to preserve the integrity of the site’s natural surroundings.
When contacted, press representatives for the JDA did not offer comment.
An independently-conducted poll sponsored by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce found that just 54% of residents within the four counties were aware of the Rivian project. Of that 54%, however, the poll found a “2-to-1 advantage in support among those who are aware of it, with 49% of aware voters supporting it, and 24% opposing it.” The poll surveyed 450 people within the four counties.
State leaders also have high hopes for the positive effects that Rivian could have for future generations of Northeast Georgia residents. The JDA and other Rivian representatives have received dozens of letters of support from local authorities in the four county-area.
“While I know a project of this size has more than its share of challenges to overcome, I wholeheartedly believe these unique, well-paying jobs will not only improve the lives of the Rivian employees but have a positive impact on all business in the Jasper County,” said Mark Vaughn, a Jasper County resident and business owner, in a letter of support written in February 2022.
Rivian’s effect on the economy, environment, and way of life within rural Georgia communities is difficult to predict. As the JDA and Rivian supporters insist that the company is essential to revitalizing the mostly agricultural economies of Jasper, Walton, Newton and Morgan counties, equally vocal opponents say that their way of life is precious, and bringing in big businesses and the infrastructure needed to support them just isn’t worth it.
The future of Rivian’s presence in Northeast Georgia, along with its potential to impact citizens’ lives for better or worse, remains to be seen.
Josie Lipton is a senior majoring in journalism and art history.
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