The Washington Post

In W.Va., a fight over a fac­tory

In­su­la­tion plant prom­ises jobs, but some res­i­dents worry about air and wa­ter qual­ity

- BY PA­TRI­CIA SUL­LI­VAN Blue Ridge Mountains · Notts County F.C. · primary school · West Virginia · Virginia · Washington State · Baltimore · Regina · U.S. Internal Revenue Service · United States Patent and Trademark Office · Rotary International · Kansas · Kansas City · MARC Train · organization · Facebook · Denmark · Joe Manchin · Mississippi · Jefferson County · Charlestown, WV · Ranson, WV

ran­son, w.va. — A ci­ti­zens’ up­ris­ing over the ar­rival of a heavy-man­u­fac­tur­ing plant that will bring 150 well-pay­ing jobs has up­ended this tran­quil moun­tain com­mu­nity on the east­ern pan­han­dle of the state.

Many res­i­dents of af­flu­ent Jef­fer­son County say the jobs are not worth burn­ing 84 tons of coal each day by a for­eign man­u­fac­turer that wants to turn basalt, olivine sand and baux­ite into su­per-ef­fi­cient in­su­la­tion.

They say pol­lu­tion from the Dan­ish com­pany Rock­wool’s three tow­er­ing smoke­stacks will threaten their health, con­tam­i­nate their well wa­ter and soil, and drive away tourists who come for gam­bling, river rafting and unim­paired views of the Blue Ridge Moun­tains. They are fu­ri­ous over the zon­ing de­ci­sions and tax breaks used to lure the com­pany here.

Rock­wool ex­ec­u­tives and lo­cals who sup­port the plant, which is un­der con­struc­tion, strongly dis­agree. The plant will bring jobs to a state that needs them,

pro­po­nents say. Both state and fed­eral reg­u­la­tors say there will be no neg­a­tive health or en­vi­ron­men­tal consequenc­es from the op­er­a­tion. Rock­wool, the first new ma­jor em­ployer in Jef­fer­son County in years, prom­ises to ex­ceed en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and be a valu­able neigh­bor.

“We un­der­stand peo­ple want to en­sure the air they breathe and wa­ter they drink are clean and healthy,” said Trent Ogilvie, the pres­i­dent of Rock­wool’s North Amer­i­can busi­ness unit. “We’ve been in busi­ness 80 years. We cer­tainly would not be in busi­ness very long if our op­er­a­tion put air or wa­ter at risk.”

The $150 mil­lion pro­ject em­ploys 250 con­struc­tion work­ers, and the fac­tory will sup­port an ad­di­tional 150 in­di­rect jobs once it is fully oper­a­tional, the com­pany says.

But as its size and im­pact have be­come known, the county has erupted.

Two new state del­e­gates won elec­tion in Novem­ber on the strength of their op­po­si­tion to Rock­wool, and the school district tried un­suc­cess­fully to seize the prop­erty where the plant is be­ing built — across a two-lane road from an ele­men­tary school. Sev­eral law­suits have been filed, and two dozen peo­ple were ar­rested last month for block­ing ac­cess to the con­struc­tion site.

Nearby Charles Town un­suc­cess­fully tried to ban both proand anti-Rock­wool signs from res­i­den­tial lawns, and Mayor Scott Rogers is re­sign­ing be­cause of threats he said he re­ceived from pro-Rock­wool forces. Twelve of the 21 mem­bers of the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment author­ity also have quit.

“Peo­ple have stopped go­ing to the Satur­day farm­ers mar­ket be­cause they don’t want to run into each other,” said Chris­tine Sny­der, the manag­ing edi­tor of the Spirit of Jef­fer­son, a 5,000-cir­cu­la­tion weekly news­pa­per. “It’s got­ten into so many cor­ners of the com­mu­nity . . . . It re­ally has just taken over ev­ery­thing.”

A pros­per­ous county

Jef­fer­son County is West Vir­ginia’s most af­flu­ent, with a median house­hold in­come of $72,526, com­pared with $43,469 statewide, and a poverty rate of 10 per­cent, about half the statewide rate. Thou­sands of res­i­dents com­mute to the Wash­ing­ton and Bal­ti­more met­ro­pol­i­tan ar­eas each day.

While the state’s un­em­ploy­ment rate is 5.1 per­cent, Jef­fer­son County’s is 3.3 per­cent. All of which means, plant op­po­nents say, that Rock­wool’s jobs aren’t needed in this place — even jobs that will pay $35,000 to $85,000 with full ben­e­fits.

“Ev­ery­one here who wants to work, and who can pass a drug test, is al­ready work­ing,” said Regina Hen­drix, 83, a re­tired In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice em­ployee and head of the East­ern Pan­han­dle Sierra Club.

Among the most wor­ried are par­ents at North Jef­fer­son Ele­men­tary School, which serves many low-in­come stu­dents di­rectly across Route 9 from the plant.

Christy Ry­der, 35, pres­i­dent of the par­ent-teacher or­ga­ni­za­tion, said she tries not to talk about the con­tro­versy be­cause it up­sets ev­ery­one. Some par­ents stopped speak­ing to each other. At least one par­ent with­drew her kinder­gart­ner and opted to home­school him.

“Par­ents weren’t even sure they wanted the PTO to in­vest in play­ground equip­ment be­cause they don’t want their kids out­side,” Ry­der said.

Op­po­nents of the plant have bur­rowed deeply into the data of gov­ern­ment per­mits. In ad­di­tion to the emis­sions from coal burn­ing, the plant will re­lease an es­ti­mated 133,000 pounds of small par­tic­u­lates into the air each year, and the area’s karst ge­ol­ogy, pock­marked with fis­sures, has al­ready opened 12 sink­holes on the con­struc­tion site, which Rock­wool filled and sta­bi­lized.

Su­san­nah Buck­les, who lives on a ridge above the Rock­wool plant, said she does not be­lieve the state’s as­sur­ances that the plant will not pol­lute the fresh air and clean wa­ter that she and her neigh­bors trea­sure.

“West Vir­ginia has been for sale to the high­est bid­der for years,” she said. “Just be­cause some­thing meets a West Vir­ginia stan­dard does not mean some­thing’s vi­able.”

The worry seems ridicu­lous to Don Specht, 69, a farmer and re­tired high school math teacher who grew up here when man­u­fac­tur­ing was more com­mon.

“The whole thing is per­mit­ted,” he said. “And this county could ben­e­fit from eco­nomic bal­ance. There’s a lot of anti-growth sen­ti­ment here, and to me, it’s cut­ting off your nose to spite your face.”

Nancy Chap­man, 67, who was drop­ping off do­nated books from the Ro­tary Club of Charles Town one re­cent day, said op­po­nents should have spo­ken up be­fore the plant won gov­ern­ment ap­provals.

“You have peo­ple who have lived in this area for gen­er­a­tions. They don’t want growth, they’re afraid of growth,” said the Kansas City na­tive. “I come from places where, if you don’t grow, you die.” Train tracks to smoke­stacks

Op­po­nents ob­ject to lo­cal and state gov­ern­ment ac­tions as much as to Rock­wool it­self.

The site, an old com­mer­cial or­chard along Route 9, beat out 10 other se­ri­ous com­peti­tors from around the coun­try for the plant. The land was go­ing to be used for a MARC train sta­tion with re­tail sites and res­i­dences nearby. But in 2015, the city of Ran­son (pop­u­la­tion 5,000) an­nexed the land and re­zoned it for heavy in­dus­try.

Typ­i­cal for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment deals, the pro­ject was cloaked in se­crecy and had a code name: Pro­ject Shut­tle.

In July 2017, of­fi­cials an­nounced that train tracks would be re­placed by smoke­stacks.

Rock­wool po­si­tions it­self as an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly or­ga­ni­za­tion, mak­ing su­per-ef­fi­cient in­su­la­tion by heat­ing rocks to 2,700 de­grees Fahren­heit and spin­ning the re­sult into a dense, fire-re­sis­tant stone wool prod­uct. It ex­pects to use about 125,000 gal­lons of wa­ter per day, some of it from cap­tured and re­cy­cled rain­wa­ter.

De­spite nu­mer­ous pub­lic meet­ings and per­mit ap­pli­ca­tions, there was lit­tle pub­lic re­sponse to the pro­ject un­til about a year ago.

One rea­son, Hen­drix of the Sierra Club said, is be­cause the re­quired le­gal no­tice for the airqual­ity per­mit ran the day be­fore Thanks­giv­ing in a small weekly news­pa­per. Months went by be­fore any­one no­ticed, she said, and the time for com­ment had passed.

But Sny­der, the edi­tor, said the no­tice was in one of the paper’s big­gest editions of the year, which also fea­tured a story about the plant on the front page. Other lo­cal news or­ga­ni­za­tions also cov­ered the pro­ject, and Rock­wool twice sent mail­ers to peo­ple who live within two miles of the site, ex­plain­ing what was com­ing.

“I feel like peo­ple were on au­topi­lot about this, not read­ing the news­pa­per, not go­ing to meet­ings,” Sny­der said. “We didn’t hear a peep for a whole year.”

But af­ter the June 2018 ground­break­ing, thou­sands signed on to Face­book pages of op­po­si­tion groups — Jef­fer­son County Vi­sion, Re­sist Rock­wool and oth­ers.

They as­sailed a pay­ment-in­lieu-of-taxes plan that trans­fers the own­er­ship of the plant site to the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment author­ity in a lease-back ar­range­ment; and they boy­cotted and demon­strated at the com­pany’s open houses. Sev­eral trav­eled to Den­mark to at­tend Rock­wool’s an­nual meet­ing; oth­ers held sitins in Wash­ing­ton, at the of­fice of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and at the Dan­ish Em­bassy.

Ex­ec­u­tives with Rock­wool — which op­er­ates 45 plants in 20 coun­tries, in­clud­ing one in Mis­sis­sippi — seem be­fud­dled by the out­cry. The com­pany has been ac­tive in en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, re­duc­ing its own car­bon emis­sions and land­fill waste, ac­cord­ing to its 2017 sus­tain­abil­ity re­port. The in­su­la­tion it pro­duces saves en­ergy.

Un­in­tended consequenc­es

On the con­struc­tion site where hard-hat­ted work­ers are la­bor­ing, un­der­ground util­i­ties have been in­stalled and a pre­ex­ist­ing brown­field has been re­me­di­ated. The first steel beams were set to rise last week, of­fi­cials said.

The op­po­nents are not de­terred.

Af­ter a twi­light rally late last month, about 65 peo­ple sang “Take Me Home, Coun­try Roads,” the state song, be­fore try­ing — un­suc­cess­fully — to dis­suade the parks com­mis­sion from tak­ing a Rock­wool do­na­tion to pay for Fourth of July fire­works.

David Levine, pres­i­dent of Re­sist Rock­wool, out­lined plans to es­ca­late civil dis­obe­di­ence, start a global boy­cott and dis­in­vest­ment cam­paign, and de-an­nex the Rock­wool site from tiny Ran­son and back to Jef­fer­son County, where elected of­fi­cials are less en­thused about the pro­ject.

Op­po­nents also called for the plant to re­duce its car­bon emis­sions to zero and move where new jobs are needed.

“I think we’re go­ing to win this,” Levine said. “They re­ally should give up sooner rather than later.”

State and county of­fi­cials say the re­sis­tance could prove costly, scar­ing off po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers for years to come.

“As to why Jef­fer­son County needs Rock­wool, why does Crys­tal City need Ama­zon?” said Ni­cholas Diehl, the re­cently de­parted ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Jef­fer­son County De­vel­op­ment Author­ity, re­fer­ring to Ama­zon’s planned se­cond head­quar­ters in North­ern Vir­ginia.

“It’s go­ing to be dif­fi­cult to bring any busi­ness in here for a long time, as a di­rect re­sult of the anti-Rock­wool peo­ple.”

 ?? PHO­TOS BY RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST ??
PHO­TOS BY RICKY CARIOTI/THE WASH­ING­TON POST
 ??  ?? TOP: Su­san­nah Buck­les’s farm is on a ridge above the Rock­wool pro­ject, which she op­poses. “West Vir­ginia has been for sale to the high­est bid­der for years,” she says. ABOVE: Plant con­struc­tion is un­der­way in Kear­neysville, but ac­tivists say they will keep work­ing to show that Rock­wool is un­wel­come.
TOP: Su­san­nah Buck­les’s farm is on a ridge above the Rock­wool pro­ject, which she op­poses. “West Vir­ginia has been for sale to the high­est bid­der for years,” she says. ABOVE: Plant con­struc­tion is un­der­way in Kear­neysville, but ac­tivists say they will keep work­ing to show that Rock­wool is un­wel­come.
 ?? KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST ?? Charles Town, W.Va., un­suc­cess­fully tried to ban Rock­wool signs from res­i­den­tial lawns, and Mayor Scott Rogers is re­sign­ing be­cause of threats he said he re­ceived from pro-Rock­wool forces. Twelve of 21 mem­bers of the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment author­ity also have quit.
KATHER­INE FREY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST Charles Town, W.Va., un­suc­cess­fully tried to ban Rock­wool signs from res­i­den­tial lawns, and Mayor Scott Rogers is re­sign­ing be­cause of threats he said he re­ceived from pro-Rock­wool forces. Twelve of 21 mem­bers of the lo­cal eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment author­ity also have quit.

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