Electric Vehicle Manufacturer Tesla Accused of Violating Major Environmental Laws in California

By: Stephanie Bontorin | Published: May 14, 2024

Elon Musk’s successful electric car company has been sued by an environmental nonprofit on Monday. 

The company has been accused of violating the federal Clean Air Act hundreds of times at its plant in Fremont, California.

History of the Clean Air Act

The federal government introduced the Clean Air Act (CAA) in 1973 to regulate air emissions from stationary and mobile sources. 

An image of a large plant emitting pollution

Source: Freepik

The law sets standards for fume emissions from cars, trucks, and factories. Earlier this year, the Biden administration began cracking down on businesses responsible for pollutants in the South. More than 200 companies that use or create chemicals faced heavy fines. 

Cancer Alley a Stark Reminder of the Dangers of Pollution

Cancer Alley is the nickname given to an 85-mile stretch of land from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in Louisiana, where the cancer rate is 44% higher than anywhere else in the United States.

A girl with no hair and a boy with a full head of brown hair play together on a hospital bed

Source: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash

More than 200 businesses in this small area have been found responsible for liquid and air pollutants that have wreaked havoc on the residents’ health. Adhering to the CAA ensures that future levels of pollutants will not have the same effect on nearby residents or employees.

Details of the Complaint

The Environmental Democracy Project has accused Tesla of emitting harmful pollutants hundreds of times from their plant just outside of Palo Alto.

A large white factory building with the word "TESLA" written in black behind a road full of cars

Source: @MarioNawfal/X

The complaint was filed on Monday and alleges that the company has exposed nearby residents to excessive levels of nitrogen oxides, arsenic, cadmium, and other cancer-causing materials since 2021.

The Lawsuit Is Filed in Federal Court

The nonprofit organization filed the lawsuit with the federal court in San Francisco. The paperwork claims that they want to place an injunction on the Tesla factory to stop excess pollution. 

An aerial photo of fog over San Francisco, California.

Source: Zetong Li/Unsplash

The group also recommends fines of up to $121,275 every day that the company continues to violate the Clean Air Act.

Tesla Already Warned by Air Quality Management

In addition to the formal complaint, Tesla was warned by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District on May 2nd to reduce harmful emissions from its paint shop.

A large factory with tall stacks emitting fumes into the air next to a wooded area

Source: Daniel Moqvist/Unsplash

The painting process in the manufacturing process has caused most of the harmful pollutants. The management board requested a special hearing to properly sanction the company.


Hundreds of Violations Have Been Recorded

The Air Quality Management Board also alleges that Tesla’s emissions abatement system has broken down repeatedly.

A row of Tesla charging ports in an empty parking lot in front of ever green trees

Source: Dietmar Rabich/Wikipedia Commons

Since 2019, the automaker has gained 112 notices of emissions violations. Each notice accounts for as many as 750 pounds of illegally dumped air pollution.


Tesla Has a History of Admitting Fault for Pollution

A few months ago, Tesla settled a lawsuit by 25 California counties that accused the company of mishandling hazardous waste across various locations.

Elon Musk speaking into a microphone, wearing a casual grey T-shirt with Tesla’s logo, inside a Tesla facility with a bright red background and a listener visible nearby

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The company was made to pay out $1.5 million in February to settle the dispute.


The Environmental Democracy Project Is Acting on Behalf of Citizens

The group does not hold any official governmental power. Instead, they claim they had the authority to file the lawsuit on behalf of private citizens living in the area.

A wide view of a large factory with wide cement stacks pumping dark fumes into the air next to a corn field

Source: Johannes Plenio/Unsplash

In a statement by the Democracy Project, they claim, “Tesla has violated or in violation of conditions imposed by an operating permit for major sources of pollution,” which harmed the air quality and health of residents.


EVs Are Not Necessarily Cleaner

As many critics of electric vehicles have pointed out over the years, electric cars are not necessarily cleaner or better for the environment than gas cars.

A black car hooked up to a charging port in a parkade with cars parked behind it

Source: Michael Fousert/Unsplash

The fumes emitted during the driving process are certainly less. However, EVs use lithium, which creates hazardous waste for mining. Tesla has also shown that the painting process creates massive amounts of air pollutants.


Biden administration has a history of cracking down on air pollutants

Earlier this year, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Biden administration announced new regulations surrounding the number of gas-powered cars allowed to be sold in 2027. 

A silver car parked on the street is hooked up to an electric charging port

Source: Ernest Ojeh/Unsplash

The push coincides with Biden’s goal to drastically reduce airborne pollutants caused by cars in the coming years.


Tesla Is Not Above the Law

Although the current administration has pushed new regulations to get more electric vehicles on the roads, car manufacturers like Tesla still need to follow the rules during manufacturing.

A black car on the assembly line of a car manufacturing plant with large tools in the background

Source: Maurizio Pesce/Wikipedia Commons

Lawsuits and fines are levied against major companies in the hope that they will take further action to dispose of hazardous material correctly in the future.