Group says it intends to sue US agencies for failing to assess Georgia plant's environmental impact

A factory building is under construction at Hyundai's first U.S. plant for manufacturing electric vehicles on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, in Ellabell, Ga. (AP Photo/Russ Bynum)

A Georgia conservation group Monday filed notice of its intent to sue two U.S. government agencies, saying they failed to properly assess the environmental impacts of the $7.6 billion electric vehicle and battery plant Hyundai is building outside Savannah.

The Ogeechee Riverkeeper accuses the Army Corps of Engineers of issuing a permit to fill or dredge wetlands on the plant site using outdated data that failed to consider the project’s final scale. And it says the agency wrongly assumed the project would have a negligible impact on the region’s groundwater supply.

The environmental group also says the U.S. Treasury Department dispersed millions of dollars in infrastructure grants benefitting the project without performing required environmental reviews.

“Any activities related to this project should be immediately halted until these crucial steps are properly completed,” said a letter addressed to the agencies’ leaders by Donald D.J. Stack, an attorney representing the conservation group.

Hyundai Motor Group broke ground in 2022 on its first U.S. factory devoted to building electric vehicles and the batteries that power them. The South Korean automaker has said it hopes to begin production before the end of this year in Bryan County west of Savannah.

Ultimately, Hyundai plans to have 8,000 workers producing 300,000 EVs per year at the Georgia site, making it the largest economic development project the state has ever tackled. The plant site sprawls across more than 2,900 acres (1,170 hectares).

Spokespersons for Hyundai and the two federal agencies named in the environmental group’s letter did not immediately respond to email messages seeking comment Monday evening.

The letter says the group plans to file suit after 60 days if construction of the Hyundai plant isn’t halted while the Army Corps and Treasury Department perform updated environmental reviews.

“When we find out that permit applicants withhold important information in an application and the permitting agency hasn’t done their due diligence, we will call them out and use the law to hold them accountable,” Damon Mullis, the riverkeeper group’s executive director, said in a statement.

The group’s letter says the Army Corps granted the project’s permit in 2022 largely using information from a 2019 application submitted by a local agency before there was a deal with Hyundai to build in Georgia. It says the project grew by more than 500 acres (202 hectares) in that period.

The riverkeeper group’s letter also says the Army Corps “severely underestimated” impacts to the area’s water supply. It says agency granted a permit without information on how much water the plant would use, wrongly assuming a “negligible” impact that Bryan County’s local water system could accommodate.

However, Georgia environmental regulators are now considering permit applications for four wells in a neighboring county that would allow the Hyundai plant to withdraw a combined 6.5 million gallons of water per day. They would come from the groundwater aquifer that’s the region’s main source of drinking water.

The riverkeeper group says the Treasury Department violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to review the project’s impacts before dispersing an estimated $240 million in grant funding to help pay for water and wastewaters infrastructure improvements benefitting the Hyundai plant.