About 65 people rallied against the construction of an insulation plant in West Virginia in 2019, worried about air and water pollution. (Patricia Sullivan/The Washington Post)

A West Virginia insulation plant set to open next year is being investigated over complaints that it will foul the air and water in the state’s eastern panhandle and allegations that political improprieties led to the project’s approval.

The complaint against Rockwool International by West Virginians for Sustainable Development was filed to NCP Denmark last October. The Danish institution, which encourages responsible international business conduct, is an arm of the multinational Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED).

Rockwool is based in Denmark.

NCP Denmark said this week that the complaint against Rockwool “cannot be dismissed” although it has not yet determined whether any violations of its international guidelines have taken place.

Environmental advocates in West Virginia want an immediate end to construction of the factory, which is scheduled to open in early 2021 in the tiny town of Ranson, near Charles Town in affluent Jefferson County.

A year ago, activists said the $150 million plant did not belong across the road from an elementary school and within two miles of five other schools and day-care centers, and on soil that has developed sinkholes and could lead to the fouling of the community’s groundwater.

Insulation plant divides West Virginia’s Panhandle

Rockwool, which prides itself on its environmental standards, pointed out last year when the issue first arose that it has repaired sinkholes as they appear and that the insulation it plans to create at the plant will help reduce energy use by its customers.

Rod Snyder, chair of West Virginians for Sustainable Development, declined to comment on the complaint, citing NCP Denmark’s request that all parties do not argue the matter in public.

The complaint noted that Ranson, in 2004, annexed the site of a former orchard several miles north of its borders. In 2017, the town’s leaders changed the zoning of the site to allow heavy industry, knowing that it would prompt significant protests once word got out.

Neither the state nor the company held any local public hearings on the proposed plant, the complaint said. The state’s commerce secretary helped to negotiate the deal that brought Rockwool to the site, and his company, Thrasher Engineering, was selected to perform the engineering and design work for the project.

The complaint also cites Rockwool’s air quality permit application, which anticipates emitting 471 tons per year of volatile organic compounds; 239 tons per year of nitrogen dioxides — “the building blocks of ozone,” the complaint notes — and 154 tons per year of particulate matter. Its wastewater retention ponds are on land that tends to collapse, giving the wastes access to the groundwater from which most residents draw their drinking water, and there are questions about its sewage discharges, the complaint says.

NCP Denmark is not a governmental body, and its job is to resolve disputes between multinational organizations and others who object to their practices. It does not have a mandate to issue sanctions, but could criticize the company and offer recommendations if it finds the company has failed to observe OCED guidelines, an organization spokesperson said Friday.

Rockwool declined its first offer of formal mediation earlier this year because the company deemed it “highly unlikely to resolve the dispute to either party’s satisfaction.” That triggered the investigation.

Rockwool has since announced that it will use natural gas instead of coal as a source of fuel, which will “significantly reduce the environmental impact of our operations,” it said in an announcement. Its heavy truck traffic, previously estimated at 100 trips per day to bring in not just coal but rocks from which the insulation is made, will be reduced but it’s unclear by how much.

“We are entirely confident that we have planned and are executing the project respecting all local and international requirements,” said Michael Zarin, vice president for group communications for Rockwool. “Factory construction is well underway, and we are pleased to see significant interest in employment and economic development opportunities from the local community.”

John Doyle, a West Virginia delegate who was elected two years ago on the strength of anti-Rockwool opposition, said the company has been able to “coax a number of people who oppose them to believe it’s a done deal, that opposition is futile.”

“Rockwool has been attempting to cultivate a green image across the globe and their reputation will be damaged by this” complaint, said Doyle (D), who co-signed the complaint. “I am convinced the majority of the people of Jefferson County do not want Rockwool here. But if they were willing to make some significant changes in its air and water pollution and be more willing to be transparent in its dealings with West Virginia, I think the public would be willing to accept them.”