The California Tesla factory that reopened this week has a long history of racking up environmental violations, government records show.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk threatened to move the Fremont, CA, factory to Texas or Nevada, after county officials refused to let him reopen despite the state loosening its coronavirus restrictions. The county later struck a deal with Musk that allowed the factory to reopen with a slate of safety measures in place.
The battle quickly took on political overtones, as Musk reportedly downplayed the pandemic, winning Pres. Trump’s support, and echoed right-wing rallying cries. Tesla workers protested the reopening, warning that work conditions will be unsafe.
Documents detail 42 violations as recently as February and as far back as 2017. Officials told The Young Turks this week that the violations are still pending.
Despite Musk’s public claim he was ready to move the factory “immediately,” the documents show Tesla was simultaneously planning new construction and expansion of its California facilities.
Many of the environmental violations involve issues around painting, which can have respiratory implications. Respiratory issues have taken on heightened importance due to vulnerabilities associated with the coronavirus.
In the first quarter of 2020, according to a May 6 meeting agenda of the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD), Tesla received 13 notices of violations, more than any entity in 11 counties. The BAAQMD document says, “The majority of the violations occurred when the facility experienced process upsets and malfunctions which interrupted paint line operations, causing residual volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions to be released and unabated.”
Painting problems are nothing new for the plant. Journalists including Edward Niedermeyer at The Drive have chronicled exhaustively consumer complaints and regulatory actions related to Tesla's auto painting. Problems with Tesla’s painting operations included technical issues, record-keeping, and even fires, Niedermeyer reported in 2018.
As TechCrunch reported earlier this month, the same day that Musk unlawfully reopened his factory, he promoted his director of paint operations to oversee all the production at the factory.
Musk is under intense financial pressure to accelerate production--and pushing the painting process to extremes can facilitate that. For instance, hotter ovens help the paint dry faster, but can risk exceeding recommended or regulated temperatures.
A list of enforcement comments obtained by TYT notes one citation on Feb. 7 for “more than 2 allowable temp excursions/month,” although it’s not clear this related to a paint oven, as the plant also uses high-temperature oxidizers for emissions control. (Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.)
Internal BAAQMD records obtained by The Young Turks suggest that half a dozen violations involved permitting problems.
BAAQMD Acting Communications Officer Kristine Roselius declined to comment on the list TYT obtained of 42 Tesla violations dating back to January 2017. "It's an active enforcement action, so we can't comment, unfortunately. These are all pending," she said.
Asked whether that applied even to the 2017 violations, Roselius said it’s “not unusual” to have violations that old still pending.
But Musk’s notoriety arguably may boost Tesla’s stock value more than enough to compensate for the penalties he does pay.
During his dust-up with county officials — which Musk took to both Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) and Pres. Trump — Musk threatened to relocate the Tesla factory to Nevada or Texas. Another Musk company, SpaceX, reportedly lost California subsidies as a result.
But there’s little evidence Musk was serious in his threat, as Newsom himself said Tuesday. In fact, BAAQMD documents show that Tesla is in the middle of expanding its California operations.
The May 6 minutes confirm a Tesla proposal to open a research-and-development battery production line and construct a new filter house in Fremont. Permission to replace a thermal oxidizer was granted on March 16.
On the same day, Tesla got the okay to build a new paint spray booth at “a new facility” in San Rafael, about 60 miles north of the Fremont factory.