This summer will mark one year since thousands of residents in Jefferson County, West Virginia started a movement to rally against a Denmark-based company called Rockwool. The company’s proposed West Virginia plant would manufacture stone wool insulation across the street from an elementary school. The issue has sparked contention throughout the region. The voices from those against Rockwool have grown louder, but so too have those who do want Rockwool in West Virginia.
Mention Rockwool to anyone in Jefferson County, and you’ll likely get a range of responses. If you drive along almost any road in the county, you’ll find sign after sign that read, “Say No To Rockwool” or “Stop Toxic Rockwool.” In fact, along some roads, there are giant signs propped up on trucks and trailers saying that same message. It’s clear, many in the county do not want this plant built.
Pro and Anti-Rockwool Groups Emerge
Since pushback to the proposed Rockwool plant erupted almost a year ago, the community has only grown more divided. Those against the plant have taken their challenges to the courts.
But those in support of the plant have gotten more organized, too.
“I am the secretary of Jefferson County Prosperity. It is ‘prosperity for all of Jefferson County,’” Kearneysville resident Barbara Fuller told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
“Everybody [in the group] wants [Jefferson County] to be back the way it used to where people weren't at each other's throats,” she said. “I mean, I can go into Walmart now, and they'll know who I am. And you know, I'll get nasty glares, which is crazy. And it never used to be like that. Jefferson County used to be so warming.”
Fuller first spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting at one of Rockwool’s open houses last August.
At that time, she wasn’t totally on board with Rockwool yet. But after doing her own research and going to the company’s open houses, she said she’s now strongly supportive and believes Rockwool will be a good neighbor, safe and stand by their promises.
“They want to give back. They want the people around to be happy. They want their employees to be happy,” she said.
FOIAs, Lawsuits and Election Upset
Denmark-based Rockwool makes stone wool insulation by melting down basalt rock and recycled slag, and then those fibers are spun to create a wool-like material used to insulate buildings, industrial applications or acoustic ceilings.
The company wants to build a 460,000-square-foot plant in Ranson, Jefferson County, and it would employ about 150 people earning wages between $35,000 and $85,000 a year. But it’s two, 21-story smokestacks would tower over a local elementary school.
Some in the county feel as if they were blindsided by state and county officials who invited Rockwool to locate here.
“You weren't sure if this was scary or not,” Harpers Ferry resident Shaun Amos said. Amos is a board member of the leading Rockwool opposition group called Jefferson County Vision. The not-for-profit group formed out of a Facebook group called “Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool” that has nearly 11,000 members.
“People had questions,” Amos said. “And we weren't sure how we had gone from nothing. And then sort of just this trickling of information about some Danish company that was coming, to, oh, my gosh, there's a giant polluting factory about to be dropped down in the backyard, across the street from an elementary school.”
Jefferson County Vision’s mission statement includes fighting for clean air, clean water, and clean government. The group has filed legal action throughout the year; FOIA requests against the Jefferson County Commission and the Jefferson County Development Authority, or JCDA, all related to Rockwool. They’ve also filed lawsuits against the JCDA and the state.
One lawsuit questions the constitutionality of a PILOT agreement made between West Virginia and Rockwool. A PILOT agreement stands for “payment in lieu of taxes,” and it’s used as an incentive to attract businesses to West Virginia. Another lawsuit questions how the land was zoned on the location where Rockwool is expected to be built.
These lawsuits are still pending, but Amos is confident that Rockwool will be defeated.
“This factory is not coming here, because the citizens have decided that it will not be built here,” he said. “This will not happen here, and it's just a matter of time before this water flood of citizenry finds the weak places in the wall and undermines the foundation that this thing came here on.”
The debate over Rockwool even sparked upset during the 2018 election. Some new Jefferson County Commissioners were elected, and two House of Delegates seats in Jefferson County flipped from red to blue.
Dels. Sammi Brown and John Doyle, both Democrats, were elected, and both are adamantly opposed to Rockwool.
“I would venture to say, if an accurate poll were taken; if you hired an expensive polling firm to do a thoroughly accurate poll, that the results would be something like 20 percent of the county's population would be in favor of Rockwool, 60 percent against, and 20 percent undecided,” Del. Doyle said. “So, it's essentially among those who have an opinion, it's 3 to 1 against.”
Despite this though, Rockwool isn't backing down.
What's Happening Now?
Rockwool has been active within the county in the past year. The company has attended various community events and even donated $30,000 to the Shepherdstown Volunteer Fire Department.
“We really respect the commitment that we made to the community; to build the factory and create the jobs; that was the commitment on our side, and they made some commitments to us,” Rockwool’s North American President Trent Ogilvie said in a Skype interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Ogilvie said Rockwool will install two independent, public air quality monitoring stations for residents to check. Rockwool said this third-party group is an environmental consultant called ERM. Rockwool admits, however, they are still confirming this will be the consultant for the Jefferson County plant. Rockwool also said they are in the process of commissioning a third-party, human health risk assessment that will investigate the health impacts of the Jefferson County facility. Rockwool did not share the name of this group with West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
WVPB asked Rockwool if it was still worth locating to Jefferson County, given the level of pushback from so much of the community.
“We respect that some local citizens may have a different view and have a right to air their concerns,” Ogilvie said. “And there, all we ask, is to engage in constructive, fact-based, open-minded conversation. We respect concern, and we just want to make sure we can engage and be transparent and answer their questions.”
But Rockwool is facing a new challenge.
The Jefferson County Board of Education, in April, offered to purchase the land from Rockwool and use eminent domain if necessary. The Jefferson County BOE intends to use the site to build a regional student support center.
Rockwool filed a lawsuit against the Board of Education stating the move violates the company’s state and federal constitutional rights.
Despite the pushback and division within the county, Rockwool President Ogilvie said he expects the plant to be operational by mid-2020.
***Editor's Note: This piece was edited to clarify and add details about the Rockwool v. Jefferson County Board of Education lawsuit.