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Locals and environment groups in David and Goliath battle over Tesla's Berlin 'Gigafactory'

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By Katy Dartford  & AFP with AFP
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Locals and environment groups in David and Goliath battle over Tesla's Berlin 'Gigafactory'
Copyright  Shafkat Anowar/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved
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Tesla is facing a wave of opposition from local campaigners and environmentalists in response to its so-called Gigafactory, a planned facility due to open near Berlin in July.

The US auto giant announced plans for its first ever European factory in November 2019. The plant in Brandenburg is set to produce some 500,000 electric vehicles a year and, according to CEO Elon Musk, will also be home to "the largest battery factory in the world".

The news received a warm reception from many who read it as an endorsement of the "Made in Germany" quality mark. But others were left aghast, and remain so.

"When I saw on TV that the Tesla factory was going to be built here, I couldn't believe it," says Steffen Schorch, head of local environmental campaign group Nabu. "Tesla needs far too much water, and the region does not have this water."

Ever since then a group of local residents have scrambled to find ways to delay the project, holding demonstrations, publishing open letters condemning the plans, and even initiating legal action.

Last year Tesla was forced to temporarily suspend forest clearing after the campaigners obtained an injunction against it, having drawn attention to the threat this posed to the habitats of lizards and snakes during their winter slumber.

The campaigners have now focused their attention on the Gigafactory's projected water consumption, which the national broadcaster ZDF has said could reach up to 3.6 million cubic metres a year: around 30 percent of the region's available supply.

This calculation has been disputed by Musk and others, who in turn accused the broadcaster of misrepresenting a previous tweet by Musk in a documentary about the project.

Supporters of the Gigafactory project say that from 2023, a new waterworks could be constructed in a neighbouring district in order to supply the factory.

But the campaigners argue that in the meantime, the extra demand could place a huge burden on a region already affected by water shortages, and which has been hit by summer droughts for the past three years in a row.

Locals are also concerned about the impact on the wetlands, an important source of biodiversity in the region. "The water situation is bad, and it will get worse," said Heiko Baschin, a spokesman for the neighbourhood association IG Freienbrink.

Brandenburg's environment minister Axel Vogel appeared to play down the issue in March, stating that "capacity has not been exceeded for now".

But the authorities admit that the local impact of droughts is "significant" and a working group has been established to examine the issue in the long term.

The Tesla Gigafactory so far

The sprawling Gigafactory is set to cover at least 3 square km, the equivalent to approximately 560 football fields, just southwest of the German capital.

In a little over a year and a half, swathes of coniferous forest have been cleared to make way for its vast concrete compounds, which will be accessed via the already-completed 'Tesla Strasse'.

The new complex still has only provisional construction permits, but Tesla has received authorisation from local officials to begin work at its own risk.

Final approval will depend on an assessment of the project's environmental impact, including the issue of water consumption. In theory, if approval is not granted, Tesla will have to dismantle the entire complex at its own expense.

Electric carmaker 'frustrated' by German bureaucracy

According Michael Greschow, a representative of the conservationist NGO Gruene Liga, "pressure is being exerted [on the regulatory authorities] linked to Tesla's significant investment".

In early April, Tesla said it was "irritated" by the slow pace of German bureaucracy, and called for exceptions to the rules for projects that help the environment.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier agreed in April that his government "had not done enough" to reduce bureaucracy, also hailing the Gigafactory as a "very important project".

Despite Germany's reputation for efficiency, major infrastructure projects are often held up by red tape and paperwork long-lambasted as excessive by the business community.

Among the most exasperating instances to date have been Berlin's new airport, which opened last October after an eight-year delay, and Stuttgart's new train station, which has been under construction since 2010.

Brandenburg's economy minister, Joerg Steinbach, also suggested in February 2021 that the Tesla factory's opening date could be delayed until after July for the same reason.