About a decade later, when my son was in seventh grade and my daughter in kindergarten, I began to dream about leaving the District, finding someplace simpler to raise my kids. I discovered Shepherdstown, W.Va., through a friend. The children and I hiked the C&O Canal on the Potomac River. We explored Harpers Ferry and the hills on the Appalachian Trail. I started looking for a small place nearby.
What we found was magical: a turn-of-the-century cottage in a village that once served a gravel quarry. Back in the 1950s, the quarry hit an aquifer. A spring-fed lake filled up the caves, its turquoise color a reflection from its limestone walls, its water pure enough to drink.
Our house was built in 1900. I bought it for $60,000 with insurance money and moved with my children to Jefferson County. Soon, we enjoyed long summer days at the quarry. We would meander down the path to the lake, stopping to eat berries along the way. We watched blue herons crisscross the water. Barn swallows flew in and out of the caves. The air was cool and the water bracing.
But our community is facing a devastating threat. The lives of my grandchildren — all of our children — are at risk.
Rockwool, a Danish corporation that manufactures mineral wool insulation, is trying to build a 460,000-square-foot factory in Jefferson County, 60 minutes from Northwest Washington. Mineral wool is a euphemism for a material made by melting rocks.
Rockwool calls itself an environmentally friendly product, but its manufacturing process is anything but clean. Rockwool liquefies rocks at molten temperatures and will release byproducts in two 21-story smokestacks in Jefferson County, emitting by its own report more than 500,000 tons of toxic material per year. The emissions include formaldehyde, nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, sulfuric acid mist, phenol and hydrochloric acid and more than 153,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. Moreover, Rockwool’s mineral wool manufacturing process constantly releases hundreds of quintillions of tiny particles that cause respiratory inflammation, which can lead to infections and lung cancer.
Jefferson County’s karst topography is prone to sinkholes, which means that the limestone underpinning Rockwool’s factory is fragile and easily fragments. Rockwool’s process would result in tens of thousands of gallons of wastewater per day released into the soil; the corporation plans to use millions of tons of salt to chemically mitigate this waste. According to the Potomac Conservancy, the salt content of the Potomac River is already increasing, mostly as a result from winter road salt. With Rockwool, our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay will become even more contaminated.
When will we heed the reports that warn of the extreme dangers of air and water pollution? When do we say enough is enough? In Jefferson County, more than 12,000 residents have banded together to fight the introduction of heavy industry in a rural region where many people come to hike the Appalachian Trail, white-water raft in the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and visit our historic towns of Harpers Ferry, Charles Town and Shepherdstown.
We read daily in news sources about the worsening fate of our planet and the many health dangers to our children from the ever-increasing pollution in our air and water. Now that threat has come to my home, Jefferson County. And it has come to all of us. What are we going to do about it?