Berlin - Elon Musk always said Tesla would build its electric car factory in Grünheide in Brandenburg in record time. Cars were supposed to roll off the assembly line by July. As things stand now, that's almost impossible to imagine; construction at the site had been halted and Musk's first German factory now faces a bureaucratic nightmare.

It all started with a TV report revealing that the Brandenburg Environment Ministry had ordered a temporary halt to construction of Gigafactory 4. The ZDF investigative show Frontal 21 and news site Business Insider reported on the US automaker laying sewage pipes on the site in Grünheide, southeast of Berlin, for months - including for several weeks without a permit. The discovery of the illegal work led the ministry to temporarily shut down the site. According to officials, construction was halted from 26 March to 12 April, after which the sewage work was granted provisional permission.

Review of Tesla applications still ongoing

Members of the leftwing Die Linke party in the Brandenburg state parliament in Potsdam now want access to all files relating to the factory. "Tesla has obviously and repeatedly built without a permit - and the environment minister is not reacting indignantly, but is instead protecting the company," said parliamentary group leader Sebastian Walter on Wednesday. "He dismissed the illegal construction as an 'error' and praised Tesla's great willingness to learn - a willingness that we, in any case, are unable to detect."

In a nutshell, the final building permit for the largest new industrial project in former East Germany is still pending because officials haven't finished reviewing Tesla's application documents. But construction continues anyway.

But that's not all: after the construction halt became public knowledge, the ministry announced that Tesla had informed the authorities that the company was amending its permit application to include plans for the construction and operation of a battery factory on the same site. Instead of submitting a separate application, Tesla wants to include these "improvements to the car factory" in the current procedure.

The carmaker wanted to start producing electric cars in its first European factory as early as July. Initially, up to 500,000 cars are to be built there every year. But Musk has hinted that up to 2m cars could be produced annually in Grünheide.

Ambitious target missed

Launching production by summer 2021 was always seen as an extremely ambitious goal - as construction began only last spring. Local residents and environmentalists have expressed grave concerns because the factory site extends into a drinking water protection area.

A few weeks ago, the EU announced that Tesla would receive European subsidies for battery cell development, with sums of up to €1bn under discussion. Tesla's wish to include approval for the battery production facilitty in the building permit for the car factory could massively delay the entire project.

"The exact scope of the planned changes is not yet known to the responsible licensing authority, the State Environment Agency," says the Environment Ministry. "However, it can be assumed that public participation will be required again due to this alteration." This would mean that the documents would have to be made accessible to the public again and that citizens and associations would have to be given the opportunity to raise their objections and express concerns. No one can say at present how long this could take.

The critics' main concern remains the water issue. They believe that the factory's enormous consumption will upset the water supply of the entire region between Berlin and Frankfurt (Oder). "Clean drinking water is a human right," says Christian Rechholz, the federal chairman of the Ecological Democratic Party (ÖDP) and one of the project's most vocal critics.

The ÖDP hired Rüdiger Nebelsiecka, an attorney specialising in water law, to take on their cause. According to the party, Niebelsieck concluded that, "just like all other permits for the large-scale project, the procedures for water consumption were granted by the responsible authorities much faster than usual and more than generously." Nebelsieck has prepared a 16-page legal opinion outlining possible procedural errors in the 12 provisional permits granted so far.

"Undignified working conditions"

Meanwhile, three citizens' initiatives said that the State Environmental Agency has still not responded to their open letter from 15 March. "We demand that the updated application documents for the environmental authorisation procedure be made public - and finally, real citizen participation."

Business Insider also reported on "undignified working conditions" at the construction site. Several Polish workers were quoted as saying they have to work 12 to 14 hours per day, Monday through Sunday. Despite corona contact restrictions, up to 350 workers are thought to be housed in a small hostel, with up to three people sleeping in small rooms. Furthermore, the research revealed that labourers at Tesla in Grünheide are allegedly being paid only €8.70 per hour, under Germany's €12.85 minimum wage for construction workers.

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