The European-based insulation manufacturing company Rockwool held a handful of community open houses last week at the Jefferson County Community Center. The aim was to better-connect with residents, many of whom don’t want the company to locate in the Eastern Panhandle. Rockwool’s final open house drew a crowd of hundreds who rallied outside to protest the plant.
Dozens of “Stop Rockwool” or “No Toxic Rockwool” banners and signs lined car windows, trucks, or were held by protesters. They chanted and cheered, and even sang “Almost Heaven” by John Denver.
These residents say they're angry and scared. They’ve voiced concerns about the plant’s impact on air quality and health, which is slated to be built just a few miles from four public schools and neighborhoods, and it will have two smokestacks.
“Children will be affected by the toxins that are put [out by] this. I don’t care what Rockwool says,” said Harpers Ferry resident Linda Bishop. “This is not what we want here.”
The issue has also attracted nearby out-of-state folks like David Pratt of Winchester, Virginia. Pratt said the company will affect the entire tri-state region, not just West Virginia.
“The pollution from this plant will travel,” Pratt said. “It’ll travel 30, 35 miles, and no matter what promises they make, the bottom line is, it is pumping pollution in our air, and we don’t want it in our area.”
Pratt said he thinks the region, including the Eastern Panhandle, would benefit better from jobs in agribusiness and tourism rather than the manufacturing industry.
“What we didn’t do enough of obviously is engage with everybody,” said Rockwool’s North American President Trent Ogilvie at one of the open houses. “We missed a part of this community in our communication and didn’t answer their questions well enough. So, we’re doing that. We want to get everybody’s questions, get the facts, and try to earn people’s trust.”
Who is Rockwool?
The Rockwool Group has been around for 80 years.
News of the company coming to Jefferson County first hit local newspapers and West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s airwaves in July of last year.
The company touts itself as ‘green’, using state-of-the art technology to clean and melt down basalt rock and recycled slag, and ‘spin’ the fibers in a fashion, kind of like how cotton candy is made. The company plans to recycle water it uses and employ a storm water management system.
But there will be two smokestacks releasing a range of chemicals like benzene and formaldehyde. Rockwool’s Air Quality Permit was approved by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in April.
The facility in Ranson is slated to offer 150 jobs, ranging from entry level operators, electricians and welders, to management positions.
Entry level positions will make $17 per hour. Managers will have an annual salary of around $85,000.
Rockwool said all employees will receive full, family health benefits, a 401k, and two-weeks paid vacation.
Rockwool’s Community Open Houses
Rockwool held four community open houses last week.
Tables lined the Jefferson County Community Center's gymnasium, and it was structured similarly to a job fair. Videos of testimonials looped on monitors. Product demonstrations and air quality charts were displayed. And several Rockwool employees from Canada and Denmark were available to chat.
But not many protesters went inside.
Some people did though, like Shepherdstown resident Lynn Wagner. She found it disturbing.
“It’s very pretty, and it sounds really good, but you have to look behind that and see what the reality is in terms of the toxic release into our small, lovely community that’s located in a valley,” Wagner said. “Jefferson County is an area that’s agriculture, it’s tourism, and [Rockwool] doesn’t fit into this landscape. Period.”
Other residents had a different reaction. Kearneysville resident Barbara Fuller was not a protestor, but shared concerns about emissions.
“The hard questions of, ‘are you going to poison us?’ were met with compassion. No snark. I was genuinely just…I was impressed,” she said.
Fuller said she’s not 100 percent on-board yet and wants to do her own research.
Rockwool’s North American President Trent Ogilvie said his company will be installing air monitoring stations near the Ranson plant that the public will be able to access.
“We’re going to hire and make sure the public knows that there’s an independent somebody, I don’t know who, to tell us where the most sensitive place [is] to put [the air monitoring stations],” Ogilvie explained. “We’ll make sure the information’s public. We’ll make sure there’s a third party attesting to the information and do everything we can to make sure people don’t think we’re just making up data or monitoring [ourselves], because it won’t be.”
He also hopes to foster better communication between Rockwool and Jefferson County residents, beyond the open houses and after construction is complete.
“We’re forming a stakeholder group of eighteen, a cross-section of the community,” he said. “Eighteen people that will meet every month, advise us, [and] tell us concerns they’re hearing. It won’t end after the factory starts either. We’ll always have a really enhanced community relations program.”
A Rockwool spokesperson said 200 people from the area attended the open houses. Meanwhile, one online protest group has grown to include nearly 8,000 people.
In a statement handed out by members of that group, members said Rockwool is “completely wrong for Jefferson County. There is nothing Rockwool can say that will change that. We will never agree that’s a good idea no matter how many open houses Rockwool holds.”
The Ranson plant broke ground in June and is expected to have completed construction by 2020.