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Environmental groups call on city to hold off on approving further development at Tesla gigafactory

A group of environmentalists and other activist groups are calling on the city to withhold permits Tesla has requested, including for a battery cathode facility by the company’s headquarters near the Colorado River.

In a letter to Mayor Steve Adler and the rest of council, the groups say the manufacturing process will require a substantial amount of water and chemicals, and that as a result, a hazardous waste stream will form.

“Where will the toxic waste end up? How will Austin ensure that it doesn’t pollute the water?” the letter asks.

The groups, which include East Austin group PODER, the Texas Anti-Poverty Project, Hornsby Bend Alliance and others, demand that the city wait on permit approval until the company makes commitments to engage the community and protect the environment.

While building its own batteries could mean a significant reduction in production costs for the automaker, the groups say materials and processes involved in battery production have dangers. They pointed to Piedmont Lithium, a supplier for the facility, saying caution should be taken with battery production products to “avoid contamination of surface, ground and sewerage waters."

Last year, PODER launched an initiative known as the Colorado River Conservancy to protect the character of the river corridor. Paul DiFiore, manager of the initiative, talked about its aims to put protections in place for the riverfront neighborhoods. "That was the goal that Tesla maybe brought that to another level of urgency," DiFiore told Austonia.

The company has faced controversy with its environmental action before. Earlier this year, the company was fined $275,000 by the Environmental Protection Agency for high priority violations of pollution regulations at its Fremont, California plant.

The letter from environmental groups comes just as Tesla was booted from the E.S.G. index, which ranks companies for how they follow environmental, social and governance principles.

Yesterday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk pushed back against the index, calling it a “clear case of wacktivism.”

Along with action on the cathode facility’s permits, the groups are also calling for collaborative work to remedy inequities in water access.

The letter describes how Tesla receives service from Austin Water, though the gigafactory is outside the boundaries of the service area. That’s because the Public Utility Commission granted Tesla a release from South West Water’s service, allowing them to instead turn to Austin Water for service.

Meanwhile, others in the surrounding area, like those in the Garden Valley neighborhood, rely on Aqua Texas Inc.—which has rates more than double that of Austin Water—for retail service. The neighborhood can receive wholesale service from Austin Water, however.

The groups point to this, along with other developments at the gigafactory—clearing large swaths of trees, filling in ponds and pouring acres of concrete for the factory—as a reason to enforce standards requiring companies to operate with social and environmental responsibility.

“If we do not raise the bar for the increasing number of corporations who wish to relocate to Austin or expand their presence, we risk losing precisely that which attracts people to live here in the first place: the clean, beautiful environment that is the foundation of our collective quality of life,” the letter states.


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