“This Is Our Town” – Inside A Small-Town Battle Against A Giant Chinese Battery Plant

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Authored by Nathan Worcester via The Epoch Times (emphasis ours),

Two common signs stood out on the front lawns and street corners of Manteno, Illinois, on Dec. 13: “Keep Christ in Christmas,” sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, and “Choose Manteno: No Go on Gotion!”

Ten miles south of where Chicago’s suburban sprawl finally peters out, Manteno is the latest battleground over Chinese companies coming to middle America—in this case, the electric vehicle (EV) battery manufacturer Gotion Inc., a U.S. subsidiary of China’s Gotion (or Guoxuan) High-Tech Co.

While a recent Manteno board decision to rezone a manufacturing site favorably to Gotion came as a setback for opponents, the war for the industrial future of Manteno—and America—is far from over.

The recently formed group Concerned Citizens of Manteno fired back with a lawsuit against Gotion and the village on Dec. 22.

In Manteno and towns like it, Americans are steeling themselves for a struggle.

“The Chinese government does not like us. Look what happened with the coronavirus. … But this is our town, not theirs, and we’re going to fight to save it,” Gotion opponent Ryan McHeffey told The Epoch Times.

The story begins in early September, when Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, came to Manteno and revealed that Gotion would site a $2 billion EV battery plant in the community.

The proposed location was a 100-plus acre property at 333 S. Spruce St. that includes a former Kmart distribution center. The parcel lies on the west side of Interstate 57, the north–south artery that cleaves Manteno in two as it whooshes down to the Missouri Bootheel.

The deal came with $536 million in incentives from the state of Illinois. Kankakee County has also offered the company a 30-year property tax abatement. The project could also be eligible for federal green energy tax credits.

The project will deliver “2,600 new good-paying jobs in Manteno,” Mr. Pritzker said in a statement.

Mayor Timothy Nugent, who has ruled the village with little opposition since the mid-2000s, described the Gotion announcement as a “huge win.”

Although there were rumblings about Gotion in the weeks beforehand, Mr. Pritzker’s September announcement caught many by surprise—and it galvanized opposition.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks during a ceremonial groundbreaking at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago on Sept. 28, 2021. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“All of a sudden, everybody heard about it,” Manteno resident Julie Holda told The Epoch Times.

Ms. Holda is one of numerous locals campaigning against Gotion.

Manteno activists who spoke with The Epoch Times cited a range of worries, including over highly toxic materials employed in lithium battery production, the use of taxpayer subsidies for a foreign company, possible threats to flora and fauna, destabilizing development of the sleepy village, and the influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In a September letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen requesting an in-depth look at Gotion by the Treasury’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other Republican officials describe those alleged ties.

Li Zhen, the company’s founder and chairman, is a member of the Anhui Provincial Federation of Industry and Commerce, which is part of the CCP’s United Front system and takes direction from the CCP. His son, Li Chen, who is also Guoxuan’s CEO, is a member of the Baohe District Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee, which is an advisory body of the CCP,” the lawmakers wrote.

Annette LaMore, a retired postal carrier and anti-Gotion activist, told The Epoch Times, “We are inviting our enemies into our town.”

Mike Barry, an area football coach, questioned the impact of the property tax cap on homeowners as well as the project’s long-term effect on property values.

How am I going to sell my house … with a lithium battery factory?” he asked.

Michael Barry (L) and other opponents of the proposed Gotion factory in Manteno, Ill., on Dec. 13, 2023. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

A Town Divided

November polling by a center-right group, Cor Strategies, revealed that a majority of Kankakee County residents oppose the development, with just 27 percent in support. The results suggest that Gotion critics have most of the area’s public on their side.

But Manteno residents who spoke with The Epoch Times acknowledged that the issue has raised tensions in the town.

At one point, while leading The Epoch Times’ reporter through a business in town, activists explained why they were so circumspect.

This is literally the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s right now. We just walked into the McCoy’s territory,” one of them said.

Manteno resident Marina Fisher said: “It hurts so bad. This has really divided this town.”

She spoke to The Epoch Times with her 13-year-old son, Emilio, and her 1-year-old boy, Evers. Evers is her “rainbow baby”—a child born after a miscarriage.

Like others who spoke with The Epoch Times, Ms. Fisher came to Manteno to get away from all the problems in Chicagoland.

Now, she’s worried that toxic materials at the plant could make her new home unsafe. At issue are lithium, the base material for the batteries, and other chemicals used in battery manufacturing.

In a 2023 review on the health risks of lithium-ion batteries, Polish researchers noted that lithium has long been prescribed to patients with bipolar disorder, meaning that scientists have some insight into lithium toxicity in people. The health of the kidneys, thyroid gland, and parathyroid gland can all be jeopardized. Lithium has also been linked to birth defects.

Locals are particularly concerned about another chemical, N-methylpyrrolidone (NMP), that may or may not be at play in Manteno.

Robert Dube, an attorney involved in the Manteno lawsuit, told The Epoch Times that Gotion “could not confirm” whether it would use it in its proposed facility.

Marina Fisher, with her sons, Evers, 1, and Emilio, 13, says she will move away if Gotion’s lithium battery plant comes to town, in Manteno, Ill., on Dec. 16, 2023. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded in 2020 that the use of NMP in lithium-ion battery manufacturing presents “unreasonable risks.” It has linked NMP exposure to kidney toxicity, liver toxicity, neurotoxicity, and more.

Pollution, including water pollution, is nothing new to the region. Northern Illinois is dotted with superfund sites designated by the EPA. In places such as Ms. Fisher’s old neighborhoods in Chicago, Back of the Yards and McKinley Park, a map developed by University of Illinois researchers reveals dangerous levels of lead, a neurotoxin, in the soil.

In June, ABC reported that residents in nearby University Park still stick to bottled water four years after lead was found in the drinking water. The water was supplied by a private utility, Aqua Illinois, at about the time it began sourcing from the Kankakee River rather than wells. Aqua Illinois is the same utility that supplies water to Manteno (reporting from the period doesn’t indicate that lead pollution affected Manteno).

Village of Manteno officials have said that “residential water supply will not be affected by the water needs from the Gotion plant,” citing assurances from Aqua Illinois. It stated that the plant’s wastewater will be low risk after some level of pre-treatment of the sort common for “other manufacturing plants in the area.”

But Ms. Fisher isn’t satisfied. She worries that air and water pollution could sicken her and her young children.

Not everybody can afford cases of water,” she said.

Like some others in Manteno, she feels that she “would be forced to move” if Gotion comes to town.

Lithium batteries are displayed in the workshop of a lithium battery manufacturing company in Anhui Province, China, on Nov. 14, 2020. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Mrs. LaMore is also concerned about the health hazards to Manteno residents. She pointed out that the proposed facility isn’t far from residential subdivisions on both sides of Interstate 57.

“If there’s a leak, and it gets into our water, we’re doomed,” she told The Epoch Times.

Locals also worry about what the prevailing westerlies could carry into town from the Gotion facility. The proposed plant is on the west side of town and almost directly west of an elementary school.

Another Gotion critic, Bob Forsythe, questioned the safety of operating a lithium battery plant so close to rock quarry blasting activity.

Shannyn Dockery, known as the “butterfly lady,” fears that wastewater from the plant could imperil endangered or otherwise significant plants and animals in the region. Those unique flora and fauna include the Kankakee mallow, a flowering plant with a native range restricted to a single island in the Kankakee River, Langham Island.

“We are also talking about monarch butterflies,” she said, noting that monarchs regularly migrate through the area.

“My house is a monarch waystation. I have plants specifically for the monarchs.”

Ms. Dockery worries that Mr. Pritzker’s power over the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board could affect how the state assesses those potential threats as it moves closer to approving Gotion’s plan. Board members are appointed by the governor.

Fran Ludwig and Bob Forsythe, two of the many local residents who have organized against a proposed Gotion electric vehicle battery plant, in Manteno, Ill., on Dec. 13, 2023. (Nathan Worcester/The Epoch Times)

Wider Opposition

Manteno isn’t the first place Gotion and its political sponsors have met with citizen resistance.

The company already faced backlash from residents in Green Charter Township, Michigan, where township board members were recalled in November over a Gotion battery plant proposal.

Jeff Peticolas, a Michigander who opposes the plant there, told The Epoch Times that he’s upset that the Gotion plans have been “dropped on unsuspecting little townships and villages, towns that didn’t see it coming.”

“The country’s waking up,” he said, pointing out that Americans are barred from purchasing land in China.

All land in that country is owned by the government or by collectives.

In Manteno, Gotion critics don’t even have the option of recalling their board to send a clear message.

“There is no recall or impeachment or any sort of mechanism available to the citizenry,” said Mr. Dube, who’s representing anti-Gotion activists in both Illinois and Michigan.

A Zoning Change and a Lawsuit

Manteno’s village board was at the center of Gotion’s latest victory in the American Midwest.
All but one member voted on Dec. 4 to rezone the former Kmart distribution center as “heavy industrial” from “light industrial.” The vote came just weeks after a crowded special meeting of Manteno’s planning commission—the proposed zoning change passed that body unanimously.
Gotion opponents allege that the zoning change is illegal under the Village of Manteno code. The ordinances for both light and heavy industrial zoning prohibit any use that involves “highly toxic materials.”

“They broke their own law,” Mr. Forsythe said.

Mr. Dube said, “We raised that to the [Manteno] Planning Commission.”

Like Mr. Peticolas, he noted that Chinese companies are “targeting small rural communities that they feel don’t have the money and the kind of political power to push back on these things.”

“They have no idea they’re part of a nationwide movement of citizens trying to protect their communities and protect their country,” he said.

With involvement from Mr. Dube, Concerned Citizens of Manteno filed a lawsuit on Dec. 22 against Gotion, the Village of Manteno, and the chair of Manteno’s planning commission, Francis “Smitty” Smith, “in his official capacity.”
Mr. Smith is a major Democratic donor known for his role in developing a former mental hospital into the Illinois Diversatech Campus. Mr. Nugent is another consistent donor to Illinois Democrats.

The lawsuit alleges that the commission approved the zoning change “in a five-minute meeting without any discussion of the findings of fact in opposition submitted by … Concerned Citizens of Manteno.”

In addition to the Concerned Citizens of Manteno, plaintiffs include Brian Kovaka, who lives within 1,200 feet of the property. The lawsuit claims that the plant will endanger Mr. Kovaka’s health, citing the risks of lithium iron phosphate and NMP.

Mr. Dube, who was also involved in the successful effort to prevent Chinese-owned Fufeng Group from developing a corn milling facility in Grand Forks, North Dakota, voiced frustration about inconsistencies between America’s stated posture on China and its appeals to CCP-linked firms such as Gotion.

“The federal government and the state governments have taken millions of taxpayer dollars and thrown them at Chinese Communist Party plants to build in our country,” he said.

“They go out, and they say, ‘We have to protect our national security,’ while throwing millions and billions of dollars at these plants.”

In Kankakee County, concerns over government extend from the federal level to local leadership.

In addition to being the long-time mayor of Manteno, Mr. Nugent is president and CEO of the Economic Alliance of Kankakee County. On its website, the public/private partnership stated that it’s “tasked with encouraging and facilitating new investment in the Greater Chicago community of Kankakee County, Illinois.”

Mr. Nugent declined to speak to The Epoch Times after multiple requests. A final attempt in Manteno ended with a front door shut in a reporter’s face and a major question left unanswered: Did Mr. Nugent sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) in connection with the project, and if so, in what capacity—as mayor, head of the alliance, a private citizen, or something else?

Talk of NDAs signed by officials and landowners involved in the Gotion deals is common but often difficult to substantiate.

In the case of Mr. Nugent, there’s some hard evidence.

An Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Village of Bourbonnais yielded an August text message exchange between the Manteno mayor and the administrator for the Village of Bourbonnais, Michael van Mill.

In the exchange, Mr. Nugent said he was “under an NDA to not disclose the name” of the company coming to town—later known to be Gotion.

At the time, he was seeking “long term rentals available for the battery company,” “[apartments] or residential.”

That raises another question for Gotion and local authorities: Who exactly will work at the plant, and where will they come from?

Manteno activist Amanda Piker provided the FOIA response to The Epoch Times. The Village of Bourbonnais confirmed its authenticity to The Epoch Times.

The Dec. 22 lawsuit also mentions an NDA, alleging that Mr. Nugent signed one in his capacity as head of Kankakee’s Economic Alliance.

The discovery process in that case may reveal the answer.

‘America Should Have Control’

Diana Furchtgott-Roth, an economist who leads the Center for Energy, Climate, and Environment at The Heritage Foundation, praised Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, when, in January, he removed his state from the competition to build an EV battery plant operated by China’s Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd., or CATL.

She’s also skeptical of Gotion.

“For national security reasons, America should have control over its own battery technology,” Ms. Furchtgott-Roth told The Epoch Times.

The economist criticized the public subsidies aimed at Gotion, which include half a million dollars in incentives from the state of Illinois alone and possible credits under the Inflation Reduction Act.

“Since Congress has made a decision that our domestic industry needs to be developed, then this is what we should be doing. We shouldn’t be having any foreign company come and take advantage of the tax credit and undercut our domestic industry,” Ms. Furchtgott-Roth said.

She elaborated on some potential national security risks from Chinese control over EV battery production.

“If Americans are concerned about a Chinese balloon going overhead, they should also be concerned about potential telematics and equipment in the vehicles that go in much closer proximity to places of interest, such as utilities, military bases, and other such areas,” Ms. Furchtgott-Roth said.

She said the people of Manteno “should also be worried about the EV bubble popping.”

Indeed, more than 3,800 car dealerships have sent a joint letter to President Joe Biden asking him to “tap the brakes on the unrealistic government electric vehicle mandate” in light of the slack EV demand relative to subsidized supply.

“I think people are starting to realize that maybe the EV market is not as great as what it was,” Mr. Barry told The Epoch Times.

Some in Washington are beginning to take action against Gotion and other CCP-linked firms that seek American tax dollars.

Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Mich.), a co-signatory of Mr. Rubio’s letter to Ms. Yellen, has introduced a bill—the NO GOTION Act—to keep green energy production tax credits away from such companies.

“It is clear that the so-called ‘Inflation Reduction Act’ is being leveraged by foreign adversaries to exploit loopholes to gain generous incentives and dominate key technologies in the United States,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the bill.

Mr. LaHood, whose district lies just 20 miles from Manteno, and Mr. Moolenaar, whose district includes Green Charter Township, both sit on the House Select Committee on the CCP.

Alongside the national attempts at legislation (or at least attracting CFIUS’s attention), there’s the local activism.

And beyond the village meetings, the FOIA requests, and the conversations among friends, in person or online, there’s another American tradition: prayer.

On Dec. 16, a rainy Saturday, Ms. Holda and other Manteno residents held a prayer vigil.

“I’ve been praying for God to send the David to take down the Goliath,” Ms. Holda told The Epoch Times.

Mr. Pritzker and Gotion didn’t respond to The Epoch Times by press time. Neither did the area’s state senator, Napoleon Harris; its state representative, Thaddeus Jones; or its representative in Congress, Jonathan Jackson—all Democrats.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), minority leader of the House’s CCP committee, whose district is less than 50 miles from Manteno as the crow flies, didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from The Epoch Times.

 

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