The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Insulation plant divides community in West Virginia

Some residents say they are worried about air and water pollution, and that the government was secretive and moved too fast on a Rockwool plant that makes insulation in Kearneysville, W.Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

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 has 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 pro- and 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; the Beltway is just 70 miles away.

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 home-school 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.”

From 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 air-quality 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 newspaper 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-in-lieu-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 sit-ins 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 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.”

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