— Jefferson County divides itself over the arrival of Rockwool.

As the title of this piece indicates, there’s a lot to unpack here. Comprised of almost daily coverage via area newspapers (and beyond), radio and TV, and certainly social media, as well as ongoing meetings involving the Jefferson County Development Authority (JCDA), the Jefferson County Commission, and both Charles Town and Ranson City Councils, the subject now simply known as “Rockwool” (a banner beneath which the entire issue has nestled), will continue to reveal itself—all in an effort to, essentially, sort out the details and figure out how to proceed: either with or without a $150 million, 460,000-square-foot stone wool insulation manufacturing plant taking up permanent residence on a 130-acre site in Ranson (WV).

As a lead driver for updated news and information, two primary Facebook pages have emerged: “Citizens Concerned About Rockwool-Ranson, WV”—a group page boasting over 10,000 members and linked to the “Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool” page—itself linked to a Twitter account by the same name and the website: www.toxicrockwool.com; and the “Jefferson County WV – CONCERNED CITIZENS regarding Rockwool” page, which includes members for and against, sharing back-and-forth dialogue. This page states in its About section:

This group was created to have an open (NON-POLITICAL) discussion of the concerns that a manufacturing facility of this nature brings to the community. We need to be able to talk openly about this topic without fear of being silenced for the use of simple common sense. I personally believe this could be a pollution nightmare; however, no one cared a year+ ago when protesting would have made a difference … This plant is going in no matter what and it is our responsibility as citizens to make sure the plant is a good neighbor and make sure that they go above and beyond current regulations to keep our county in the condition it is currently in …

There are additional Rockwool company social media accounts, an official company webpage, and even ancillary pro-Rockwool pages, but the above locations seem to be where the most action and conversations are happening.

Here’s the thing—when all the posting, researching, explaining, presenting, disputing, articulating, organizing, mobilizing, etc., is stripped away, it looks like this: one group of people—Rockwool Group North America, the JCDA, and the City of Ranson—wants to bring what has been determined to be an economic opportunity to Jefferson County; another group—mostly Jefferson County citizens and larger groups therein—doesn’t want it here. They each have a story to tell; they each have been attempting to tell that story vigorously for the last month or more.

In coming weeks and months, that collective story will evolve and unravel itself in way that leads to one part of the story, and its advocates, moving forward, and the other side faced with the reality of what has been decided, and perhaps what to do next.

A rendering of the proposed Ranson Rockwool site—construction is set to begin in October. Photo ©Rockwool.

Caught Off Guard

The Rockwool debate is comprised of a few primary arguments (which splinter off into quite a few sub-threads [like some eye-opening tax incentives] that you’re more than welcome to explore at the links provided above, or elsewhere online): (A) Rockwool opponents feel that both the company, and especially the JCDA, didn’t do enough to alert and educate the public about Rockwool since the initial announcement in July 2017; (B) the Rockwool factory’s two stacks—one of which is over 200 feet tall—will emit an array of toxic chemicals that opponents say are unacceptable and unsafe for the community, but especially North Jefferson Elementary School, which sits across the street from the factory, and a handful of other schools within a couple/few miles of the plant, Jefferson High School being one; and (C) opponents believe the overall process is the first step in a long-term plan to attract more industry to the site, and eventually up and down the Rt. 9 corridor—thus turning the area into something that more resembles Charleston’s chemical valley than the relatively pristine Shenandoah Valley.

Rockwool advocates are firm in their belief and stance that everything has been done to the letter in an effort to bring opportunity to Jefferson County. Rockwool North America comprises manufacturing sites in Marshall County, Mississippi, as well as Milton, Ontario, and Grand Forks, British Columbia. The Ranson site would be its newest facility in North America.

Trent Ogilvie, President of ROXUL, the Rockwool Group’s North American subsidiary, recently explained. “It was really just a business decision—trying to get a factory close to the Mid-Atlantic and northeast market. We have factories covering western North America, and our newest one in Mississippi covering the South—and with the population density up here, we needed another factory in the northeast beyond what we have in Milton (Ontario).”

Ogilvie said the process began back in 2016—with Rockwool sending over request for proposals for 57 individual sites—with 10 different states sending back interest. “Those were quickly paired down through levels of screening where we use site consultants, and at the end, it came down to Jefferson County really wanting this project—their economic development people at both local and state levels,” he confirmed. “It’s ideally suited, close to D.C., and within one-day’s trucking of New York. So it’s a great geographic location.”

He added, “You want to make sure that you have a business climate and a community that is welcoming of an industrial facility. We worked with the economic development authority here in Ranson and Jefferson County. They visited our factory in Mississippi, and were excited about the kind of facility it was—the lack of emissions, the cleanliness, all those things that make up a Rockwool factory—and assured us this is the kind of place that would welcome the factory.”

Ogilvie pointed out that Rockwool’s Milton location sits in the middle of a town of 100,000 people with seven schools within a mile or so radius and a trail system similar to Appalachia. “In British Colombia, we’re in the mountains, with vineyards, and those kinds of things,” he said. “We’ve operated successfully in those types of environments, and there was nothing here that suggested we couldn’t operate. We’ve never been a nuisance to our neighbors, we don’t plan to be, and we don’t think any of these emissions are going to be a health concern. They’re not a concern anywhere else we operate around the world.”

With that in mind, he admitted to being caught off guard by the public’s reaction more than a year after the official announcement. “We followed the same protocol we do with all of our new factories—North America or otherwise. We announced it over a year ago with a bunch of fanfare, press releases to the state, the county, the city, and we gave a lot of presentations to various groups. And more importantly, in October and January [2018], we sent flyers out to citizens of Ranson within a two-mile radius, talking about the project, the timeline about how we needed permits, and about the construction.

“Certainly, the permit was placed in newspapers, so people knew, and there was a public comment period, which we didn’t get much of. So that’s what we normally do, and we thought it was going quite well. We had a great groundbreaking ceremony in June [2018], and then this thing jumped at us in July. So yes, we were surprised.”

Indicating that the same type of communication and outreach has been successful with the last two big projects they’ve done (in Toronto and Mississippi), Ogilvie stressed that, additionally, the company has received zero complaints on any aspect—noise, odor, air quality—or any other issues from any North American facilities.

“But could we have done more here, in hindsight? Yes, maybe, I guess we should have done more in terms of communication. But there was a thirty-day public comment period, where these groups, Sierra Club or otherwise, could have commented or raised their issues. We actually invited the Sierra Club to be part of the initial stakeholder group and they said no. We also invited them to meet with us since I’ve been in town for the open houses, but they’ve declined.”

Several hundred protesters gathered at Rockwool’s late-August Open House events and made their voices known. Photo ©Observer.

Wake-Up Call

In mid-August, the Denmark-based company ramped up its PR efforts in order to balance out the social-media explosion and resulting community conversation that emerged in late July in opposition to the factory—a flare up that Ogilvie assumed had something to do with the groundbreaking in June and people “waking up” to the project.

In addition to a number of public appearances at various city council and commission meetings, Rockwool representatives, including Ogilvie, organized a series of open-house events at Sam Michael’s Park in Shenandoah Junction August 23-25—which were respectably attended by folks looking to simply know more, and heavily attended by protestors, many of whom had been protesting for the last two weeks throughout Jefferson County.

One of those protestors was Mary Anne Hitt, a Shepherdstown resident and director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. An environmental advocate for almost 25 years, Hitt said she doesn’t want her daughter growing up anywhere near the factory. “I’ve spoken about this project with experienced engineers and regulators who have made it clear that this facility, with its high levels of toxic chemicals and air pollution, has no business being this close to our schools or homes.”

Hitt noted that she first heard about the project in June (2018), and only began to understand how bad it was in late July, after talking with experts. “That’s when I reached out to local Sierra Club volunteers,” she said. “Because of the secretive nature of the process, it slipped by all of us. Our elected officials and state regulators have let us down, and the Sierra Club is proud to stand with our friends and neighbors to fight for clean air and a healthy, sustainable Jefferson County.”

Also in attendance at the open house/rally on August 25 was Dr. Shaun Amos, from Harpers Ferry. When asked by a member of the JCDA why so many people were outside—having a picnic or holding signs and chanting, singing, etc.—versus inside engaging in the Rockwool Open House and getting their questions answered, he responded by saying that the group doesn’t have as many questions as it does objections—to the entire concept of heavy industry in the county.

“If there had been JCDA open houses early on, which blatantly asked citizens how they would feel about having a heavy industrial factory that puts out hundreds of tons of chemicals through two-hundred-foot-tall smokestacks next to an elementary school in the middle of agricultural land, we would probably not be in this pickle,” he said. “Something like Rockwool is clearly not welcome in Jefferson County, no matter what a scientist from Denmark can answer—no matter what a businessman from Canada has to share. So, it isn’t so much about a lack of curiosity on the part of the citizens. This was an epic failure on the part of the JCDA to ascertain public acceptance of this proposed nightmare before courting Rockwool.”

Amos’ words generally reflect the stance of the larger group, which has ultimately found fault with Rockwool, but more so the JCDA, for not being more transparent and more communicative in the last year. As a result, the group maintains, Jefferson County (especially the area near the factory) and surrounding areas are now in danger of being exposed to what comes out of those 20-story “stacks.”

The state air emissions permit that Rockwool obtained allows the plant to release 155,000 tons of chemicals per year—153,000 tons of which are described as “carbon dioxide equivalents.” Additionally, the stacks could emit up to 113 tons of fiber “hazardous air pollutants” and up to 68 tons of formaldehyde per year.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) lists 13 hazardous air pollutants that Rockwool will discharge, including six of which that have been classified as potential cancer-causing substances: acetaldehyde, benzene, biphenyl, butadiene, formaldehyde, and naphthalene.

Seven other potentially carcinogenic items on the list either boast insufficient data or are “not classifiable” as such—or they haven’t received enough study to be determined as cancer causing.

The plant can release up to 4,400 tons of particulate matter into the air per day—some 470 tons of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds)—and is also cleared to use up to 120,000 gallons of water per day, though Rockwool said it will only use between 25,000 and 100,000 gallons per day.

In a nutshell, all of this fits within the daily operations of Ranson’s proposed Rockwool plant (construction is expected to begin in October), which will run 24/7, employ 150 mostly local people, and create stone wool fiber that becomes the basis for industrial tiles that go into ceilings and walls and other places you rarely notice. Rockwool produces the fiber by melting rocks with heat generated by coal (with natural gas burners—hence the proposed natural gas pipeline running to the site). The water is used to mix the binder that holds the product together, and then, whatever hasn’t evaporated, is stored in onsite ponds. The emissions produced within the process are released via the smokestack(s).

Rockwool’s particular product has become extremely popular due to its fire-resistance properties compared to other products. And they’re busy because of it, and growing quickly.

An example of what Rockwool will be producing at its Ranson factory. Photo ©Observer.

But that doesn’t impress Jefferson County’s Jay Mansfield, who has been vocal on social media and elsewhere, but doesn’t just talk the talk. Mansfield spent much of his career operating a family owned business in the oil and gas industry, and then treated hazardous medical waste as an industrial chemist. He also developed a computer-assisted program after 9/11 (2001)—utilizing syndromic surveillance—which serves as sort of fire alarm for infectious diseases and/or harmful chemicals—particularly, dangerous chemical plant emergencies. His technology has been used heavily since 9/11; his interests with Rockwool lie mostly within what “companies” don’t tell the public.

“They tell you what they think you want to hear,” he acknowledged. “Or what they’re required to tell you.”

Mansfield pointed out that the list of toxic pollutants that the WVDEP allowed for Rockwool to emit is not what people might expect. “Mainly, because the WVDEP’s regulations are far below expectations for what one would assume an environmental protection organization would require. So that’s first and foremost. And then Rockwool comes in and says ‘this is what we’re going to emit,’ and WVDEP says okay. If Rockwool goes over the limits, basically, they just have to call WVDEP and let them know.”

Whether or not WVDEP will fine Rockwool for the transgression, according to Mansfield, is up in the air, so to speak. “They’ll say, ‘Well, generally, what we do is take a look at what happened and we make sure they’re taking effective steps to fix the problem. You can call them: they’ll tell you this. That’s not environmental protection; that’s enabling.”

In regards to both JCDA and Rockwool claiming they’ve done everything required of them to let the public know over the last year or more, Mansfield said this situation is bigger than that, and should have set off alarms immediately at JCDA, if nothing else.

“I think they needed to begin with something being emitted from a factory and falling towards the ground,” he stressed. “That’s quantifiable, and it adds up. And it’s not just a one-time worry. When people mow their lawns, they’re going to bring it back into the air—every single year—increased by the yearly amount coming out of the stack every year. It’s not going anywhere. It’s going to sit right there in the yard; people don’t think about that. But they should have thought about it at the JCDA. The Rockwool folks know about it, but they’re not required to discuss it, so they won’t.

“The thing that gets me about the JCDA is that if you have an understanding of that—that it doesn’t just float off into never-never land—then you would have a limitation on just the amount you would allow in Jefferson County. You’d have a list of what you allow in the county—the pro-rated share that Rockwool is allowed. But they don’t have any of those guidelines because they’re dependent on the WVDEP to make those decisions, and the WVDEP doesn’t add up the amount per county. They just say the amount per company.”

Mansfield also pointed out some numbers that he said no one is touching, but considering Ranson demographics, should be making headlines on the regular. “The asthma part of this—it’s terrible for anyone, but especially kids and older folks. The DEP is about averages: i.e., the average person. But for people with asthma, it’s different—and for people with asthma downwind of these pollutants for a decade or more, it’s unthinkable. Not average.

“And here’s what no one wants to talk about: Ranson is around twenty percent black—the county is around six percent. African American kids have a two to three times greater chance of getting asthma than white kids, and once they have it, an almost ten-times greater chance of dying from it due to asthma complication(s).”

Mansfield underscored that this will be a unique situation for Rockwool, if it gets the green light. “They’re walking right into it; they’re the only thing out there—the only polluter in a part of the county that’s twenty percent black. The detectors are about to go off—and they’ll say ‘… we never had this problem before.’”

Jefferson County’s youngest activists—elementary-aged kids protesting in early August in downtown Charles Town. Photo ©Observer.

Open Lines

Jefferson Countians who are now aware of the above information (and more) are alarmed, to say the least, and feel that Rockwool and the JCDA didn’t do enough in the last year to articulate exactly what type of company was coming and what type of potential health risks it was bringing. Opponents say they would have said no then, and they especially say no now—and that efforts to establish dialogue from the advocacy side are simply too little, too late. But despite the recent clash, JCDA President Eric Lewis is determined to keep those lines of communication open, and the information as transparent as possible moving forward.

“I don’t think anything we did was wrong, but I want to make sure we address it going forward, and that we give the public the information they’re asking for,” he assured. “There are a lot of very reasonable, concerned people out there. And they see big, scary numbers in a permit, and it’s reasonable for them to be concerned, and we want to make sure that everyone understands that we’re not dismissing that at all. We want their input, but at the same time, there is some hysteria involved here, and I think some of the folks like to perpetuate misinformation.”

An example, Lewis said, is the position held by many who oppose the project that this is just the tip of the heavy-industry iceberg for the Rt. 9 corridor. “This simply isn’t the first of many factories to come. I’ve said it now dozens of times, and we can talk about all the other types of businesses that we’re pursuing, and what we envision for that area with water and sewer to it, but it doesn’t have to be—and in my opinion, it will never be—the type of site that has multiple stacks emitting multiple things. I don’t think it was ever going to happen, but it’s definitively not going to happen now.”

That said, Lewis revealed: “We’re talking to a company right now that we’re very hopeful will locate right beside them [Rockwool] that I am one hundred percent confident that the community will do backflips over. In fact, I think it will shock the community that a company which does what this company does would want to locate beside the plant that they’re being told is so bad. But with the process of economic development being what it is—such that I can’t tell anyone who the company is—people just have to understand that this is the process.”

That process, as mentioned, is perhaps the most intense point of argument for Lewis’ opponents—that “Rockwool” was veiled in secrecy from the start—a notion that Lewis underlined couldn’t be farther from the truth.

“It’s very important that we explain how that process works,” he said. “A site selector is hired by a company to find a site that meets their criteria. They consult with the company, develop a list of criteria, and then they go looking for a parcel. The site selector calls communities or states and says ‘… Hey, do you have any parcels that meet this criteria?’ The state and counties go through their inventories and determine if they have a match. You get a general idea of what something is, but you don’t know who the company is or anything about them. But you submit; you don’t want to miss out on an opportunity at that early stage.

“And this is how it works all around the country. The site selector then goes through the process of narrowing it down. I don’t have any idea at that point, nor does the state, how many sites Rockwool started out with, but it would have been many along this part of the East Coast within a general area of where they wanted to be. Then it gets narrowed down to a couple properties, and the site selector really gets to work on the details of the properties. Once they’ve narrowed down to one, two, or three, they begin negotiating with property owners on the sale price. They’re also looking at the incentives and the tax structure—all the things as it relates to the other competing properties in their top three, let’s say. But we still don’t know who they are—until the very last minute, and there’s a reason for that.”

(One aspect of the package offered to Rockwool via the Jefferson County Commission—and an additional point of heated debate—involved all five commissioners approving a “payment in lieu of taxes” agreement that will allow parent company Roxul Inc. to avoid paying local real estate or personal property taxes from 2018 through 2029. The WV Department of Commerce also agreed to commit $15 million in infrastructure spending to the project.)

An information table at the Rockwool Open House event in late August. Photo ©Observer.

Lewis said the JCDA always finds out who the company is late in the process. “And that’s when we start doing our research on them. Because these are public companies, you can’t have word getting out with the public markets that a company is looking to build. It will affect the public markets. People that have inside information could (conceivably) benefit. Also, this company is trying to buy land. If you’ve got five hundred acres for sale, and you know someone like Proctor and Gamble, or whomever, wants it, you can imagine how that would affect price. And then lastly, these companies don’t want their competitors to know what they’re doing too far in advance.”

As far as the JCDA signing NDAs early in said process, Lewis had an easy answer. “If we as a development authority, or a future development authority, were to decide to pass a resolution that says we’ll never sign an NDA in a situation like this, they might as well just turn the lights out. We’ll never get another business; it’s just how it works.”

Moving forward, Lewis said one way to remedy a lot of the confusion would be for the public to be more involved in the JCDA. To that end, he is taking proactive steps to involve anyone interested. “I’ve been involved in local government for twenty years now, and the development authority for twenty years,” he explained. “The public has never shown an interest in getting involved in what we’re doing. We had a strategic planning meeting last summer—publicly noticed—and not a single member of the public showed up. So, sure, we welcome the public’s input, and I’ve been reaching out to folks I know who are on either the concerned or the adamantly opposed side of this thing and having my own meetings with them.

“I’m trying to create a dialogue so we can understand each other. At the JCDA’s August twenty-eighth meeting, I introduced a strategic direction meeting that would be set for an evening [TBA] in September—open to the public. It’s not a Rockwool discussion, but rather a future of economic development in Jefferson County discussion.

“But there have been dozens of meetings over the last ten years, whether it’s the comprehensive plan, or Ranson’s larger vision—the public has been engaged, and in a lot of cases, has ignored it. We followed the same process that every other jurisdiction in the country would have followed. I can tell you, not a single person involved in this project that I’ve been around or been associated with thought that anyone would object to this. There wasn’t any nefarious intent and there wasn’t any inkling that we would need to do anything more than what we’ve always done on every project. It was business as usual.”

Lewis also noted that there wasn’t a single public comment on the air permit. “The only comment on the air permit came from the EPA. Had there been a public outcry over the air permit when it came out, when it was advertised, that might have changed things. Everyone has been Googling everything for the last month or so, but on July seventeenth (2017), they could have Googled all the same stuff. It doesn’t mean anyone was hiding anything from anyone, and I will say I’ve had lots of conversations with people who don’t make that assertion.”

One thing, however, that has bothered Lewis is the assertion by some that he or anyone else on the JCDA is on the take. “These folks who don’t know their community members and the people who volunteer on these boards—the first thing they throw out is: ‘follow the money,’” he said. “That’s just asinine. It’s the easy thing to throw out. This is about good people giving up their time to try and make the community a better place. To say we’re getting paid off is simply offensive.”

But like Ogilvie, Lewis also understands there are lessons to be learned here. “Of course, in hindsight, we should have done more, but that’s water under the bridge,” he said. “Now we know, which is why I want to be proactive going forward. I want to have this evening meeting so we can talk about the future of the county and the future of that corridor, and people can provide their insight. Though we can’t un-ring the bell on this current project, I guess those of us who do get appointed to a position like this tend to be more involved by way of the position—and maybe we take it for granted that people are paying attention in the same way we are. And I think that’s a lesson we’ve learned now.”

A Rockwool protester displays one of the branded protest signs while people purchase additional branded shirts at an August rally. Photo ©Observer.

Ongoing Discussion

Jefferson County resident Will Sutherland has been active on the social media sites as well as within many of the local meetings. He spoke with both Ogilvie and Lewis in August. “I wanted to reiterate to them that when something like this happens, you can’t just say ‘where were you a year ago,’” he pointed out. “I talked with Eric personally about this and told him that people have entrusted him (and others) as the president of the JCDA with the best interest of the community. We have jobs and families and lives; we’re not on the development authority, so we have to put our trust in the people there to make the best decisions for the county. And if they’re not sure about those decisions, then let us know, and let us know often if that’s what it takes. We trust our representatives to do this, and not just once early in the process because that’s all that is required or all you’ve ever done up to this point.”

Sutherland will attend whatever meetings he can, mainly because he’s still not convinced that Rockwool isn’t a harbinger of things to come. “I know they say there’s nothing lined up after Rockwool, but I truly feel like this will spearhead the movement to bring the gas line in that direction and then finally the state’s dream of having that whole route-nine corridor customized for industry,” he said. “You’ll have the sewer extended, the gas lines, the highway, the rail lines—all the pieces will be there. Now they’ve hit a snag, and we want to get to the bottom of it. We weren’t aware that a factory was coming in that uses coal and slag and gas and the pollutants associated with it. They haven’t addressed property values well enough. And what type of benefit is a hundred and fifty jobs (though likely much less)? It all feels like it was pushed through very quickly—and feels like there might be a bigger reason for that. And we want answers.”

Lewis is hoping to provide as many answers as he can from this point on. “I’m bringing in John Bresland, a local chemical engineer and former board member of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board,” he explained. “John’s a brilliant guy with high integrity and I reiterated to him to tell me the truth about this plant and this process and not tell me what he thinks I want to hear—not that he ever would. And I’m also recommending to the JCDA that we engage a reputable environmental consultant as well—to do the same: look at the permit, the numbers at other plants, the various laws—to create a side-by-side comparison in language we can all understand.

“Throughout this process, we’ve trusted the EPA and WVDEP. I’ve not been given any indication why we shouldn’t have, but the public is saying that’s not good enough, so we want to go out and get more information for them.”

Jefferson County resident and social advocate, Tony Russo, suggested that, regardless of the information provided to the public from this point forward, the overall situation has more layers than supporters have described.

“JCDA has worked surreptitiously for several years with others to carefully coordinate the routing of a gas pipeline, expansion of the borders of Ranson all the way to the county line, rezoning, obscene tax incentives, the merger of utilities, and significant infrastructure improvements—to make way for heavy and dirty industries along that corridor [Rt. 9],” he noted.

“The JCDA has performed the bare minimum in terms of transparency, due diligence, and public engagement, and orchestrated a set of votes by local, county, regional, state, and federal entities to fast-track this project under the radar. One county commissioner actually said on video that he hoped the commission wouldn’t be in the position of signing the payment in lieu of taxes agreement so they could then be able to see what was in it—i.e., after the fact. Moments later, he voted enthusiastically for it, as did all the other commissioners who were present—despite numerous unanswered questions and significant concerns about the content, legality, and negative impact on the tax structure of the agreement.”

Russo emphasized that unanimous votes in support of the agreement were taken by both the County Commission and later by the Jefferson County School Board before they knew what was coming out of the stacks. “Apparently, five members of the commission and the twelve members of JCDA believe they have the power to overrule the will of the people,” he stated.

(It should be noted that, as of August 27, 2018, the Jefferson County School Board requested that Rockwool stop construction at the site while an independent committee develops a broad-risk assessment that re-examines air emissions, studies how the plant’s water usage will affect underground water in the county, and looks at the impact of the estimated 100 trucks per day running 24/7 to and from the site. This in addition to the Charles Town City Council, on August 6, 2018, motioning to table “The Public Hearing, Second Reading and Consideration of an Ordinance Authorizing the Leasing of Certain Sanitary Sewer System Assets from the Charles Town Building Commission” until October 1.)

Rockwool protesters gather signatures for a petition at a recent gathering in Charles Town—which has nearly 10,000 signatures at press time. Photo ©Observer.

Early and Often

John Doyle, a Democratic candidate for District 67 of the WV House of Delegates, feels that the bigger question for Jefferson County involves its economic future. “What do we see as the economy here looking ahead?” he asked. “Why get started down this path if it isn’t the long-term way we want to go?”

Doyle also feels that Ogilvie might consider a more specific question. “If Rockwool is indeed committed to serving the community they want to join, and within a serious effort to understand the consternation they’ve caused, would they be willing to withdraw their application for their air-quality permit and start the process over again—so all of these questions can be asked at a public hearing before the permit is granted?”

Ogilvie firmly believes there are absolutely no health issues to fear for the community or any cause for alarm, including any facts that support as much. “And we’re going to continue to communicate this,” he said. “It’s just not who we are, how we operate, or run our factories in neighborhoods and communities around the world, and certainly not in North America.

“We are absolutely certain that there is no health effect or reason to be afraid of any health effects—to children, the elderly, the asthmatic, or otherwise—and it comes from the science and the fact that we have a permit from the EPA and the WVDEP. It also comes from decades of experience. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to stop the application. But that said, we want to make sure we do a better job listening to the concerns and providing the right kind of information. It’s important to know that we need to up our game in communication and transparency. Ultimately, we want to be a good neighbor.”

Concerned local resident and parent, Kiya Tabb, thinks Rockwool simply isn’t the type of neighbor Jefferson County needs. “Why are we recruiting this type of industry to our area?” she asked. “We are one of the only parts of West Virginia almost untouched by exploitative, dirty industry and heavy pollution. We border the richest county in the entire nation [Loudoun]—which makes its name on tourism and technology. I can’t at all understand why we are looking west for development inspiration, rather than east.”

Jakki Harbolick, a vocation teacher and resident of Loudoun County for the past 25 years, recently purchased a home in Lovettsville (VA), about half the distance to Ranson from Leesburg (her former home) as the crow flies.

“There is no truly good location for a major polluter to set up shop,” she reflected. “But why on Earth would you choose to do so in a populated area like this one? Ranson may be a small town, but it borders much larger communities in West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland, and lies near national park land as well as the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers—which provide drinking water for millions of people.

“It neighbors a large university and numerous schools, and is surrounded by countless historic sites that draw tourism to the area. This area is known for its equine industry, agriculture, vineyards, organic farms, many NGOs, outdoor recreation, and a booming residential development market. Every one of these will be negatively impacted by the pollution being pumped out of the plant and into the air, water, and soil.”

A dump truck pulls into the Rockwool site in late August. At full capacity, up to 100 trucks per day will run in and out of the site, 24/7. Photo ©Observer.

Ogilvie hopes that concerns and comments like these will ease in time with more information—of which he plans on delivering as much and as often as he can.

“As an example: the amount of formaldehyde that we will emit that touches that school [North Jefferson Elementary] is a number of .23 (micrograms per meter cubed of air),” he pointed out. “A millionth of a gram per meter cubed—the average exposure over the course of a year. To put it into context, our own breath contains one micrograms per meter cubed, and just in the air in rural areas, it’s around two. In urban centers, it can be as high as twenty. West Virginia actually doesn’t have a limit on formaldehyde, but there is a federal limit that we had to apply to. However, Virginia does, and that’s 2.4. Going beyond that, the World Health Organization indoor air guideline is ninety-eight. In the U.S., a worker can safely be exposed to nine hundred in an eight-hour day.”

Ogilvie also points to job creation. “I think of the hundred and fifty jobs we’re looking to bring—and that’s a minimum—I can’t imagine that we’d have more than three or four people coming in from outside,” he said. “At the Mississippi plant, we’re at two hundred and seventy already—and that was a very similar situation. The jobs will be a combination of management and engineers, skilled trades, and all the way down to entry level laborers and operators—high-paying jobs, above average—and certainly a career if you want it to be.”

Addressing pollution concerns will be a frequent task for Ogilvie and his team, a new normal for now, but he says they’re up to the task. “People talk about us being the number-two polluter in West Virginia, and that is certainly not true,” he said. “The WVDEP spoke at a meeting (in August) and assured the people in that meeting that it was not true; in fact, our VOC emission level is just three percent of the biggest emitter in the state, so we’re well down the ranking.

“But again, we’re committed to getting the people the information they need—like putting monitoring stations around the community. We’re not required to. We’re required to test our emissions at the stack and report that to the EPA, which is public, but we’re not required to go out and start monitoring, but we’re going to do that. We’ll work with the proper scientist so we get the right locations. I don’t want to be criticized for putting a monitor in a place that just looks good.”

Ultimately, while admittedly surprised by the community’s reaction to Rockwool, Ogilvie is now determined to put his factory’s reputation, and in many ways his own, front and center. Whether it works or not will remain undecided, for now.

“I have worked for this group for twenty-three years, and I can’t think of a factory we’ve closed,” he maintained. “We’ve been around for eighty years—thirty-nine countries, forty-five factories. Factories in the UK, in Norway, in Denmark—producing the same product—in France, Germany, one being built in Romania—all EU countries, governed by the same EU rules. We have a factory in Switzerland—four in North America. We’re building new factories all the time, and not closing any.”

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