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Tesla sued over air pollution from factory in Fremont, California

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An aerial view of the Tesla Fremont Factory on April 24, 2024 in Fremont, California. 

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Tesla is being sued by the nonprofit Environmental Democracy Project over “ongoing failure to comply with the Clean Air Act” at the electric vehicle company’s assembly plant in Fremont, California.

In the suit, filed in a federal court in San Francisco on Monday, the environmental group claimed Tesla has violated the particular law “hundreds of times since January 2021, emitting harmful pollution into the neighborhoods surrounding the Factory.”

While Tesla has long touted the climate benefits of driving EVs, its manufacturing practices have been decried by environmentalists for years. Tesla landed at 89 on the 2023 Toxic 100 Air Polluters list, an annual study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The Environmental Protection Agency fined Tesla $275,000 in 2022, claiming the company had failed to measure, track and maintain records about its own emissions or to minimize air pollutants from painting operations at the facility.

Separately, Tesla was sued by 25 counties in California for its handling of hazardous waste materials at facilities throughout the state earlier this year, and promptly settled with those counties. And in Germany, environmentalists have been protesting Tesla’s clearing of forests to build a factory outside of Berlin, as well as the company’s water consumption.

The latest lawsuit in California described Tesla’s environmental violations as “ongoing” and said that residents and employees in the surrounding area have been exposed to “excess amounts of air pollution, including nitrogen oxides, arsenic, cadmium, and other harmful chemicals.”

Tesla didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Bay Area Air Quality Management District, an environmental regulator, recently accused Tesla of allowing “unabated emissions” in Fremont that should have been prevented. The agency said Tesla has received 112 violation notices since 2019, and is now seeking an abatement order that would force the company to implement changes to its factory operations.

“The violations are frequent, recurring, and can negatively affect public health and the environment,” the regulator said in a statement earlier this month.

Air pollution from the assembly plant is the result of equipment that frequently breaks down, allowing emissions to vent directly into the air without proper filtration, regulators have said. Additionally, Tesla employees or contractors have allegedly shut off air pollution controls in the factory, particularly when the company was having trouble with other paint shop equipment.

The paint shop is where unpainted vehicle bodies are primed, painted and coated before final assembly. Tesla’s has a history of repeated fires, CNBC previously reported.

In Tesla’s recent quarterly report, the company maintained that its mission is to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.”

However, in spearheading a massive reorganization at Tesla of late, CEO Elon Musk has been promoting its research and development efforts on artificial intelligence and self-driving software, robotaxis and humanoid robots, rather than electric cars and solar energy products.

Musk told investors on the company’s first-quarter earnings call to think of Tesla and its value “almost entirely in terms of solving autonomy.” He recently called climate activists “communists,” sharing derisive memes targeting them on X.

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