Plans for a $150 million insulation factory in Ranson, WV, have started to worry Loudouners about the impacts of the plant that will sit less than nine miles from the county border.
The planned Rockwool insulation plant would crush and melt rock using coal and natural gas. A state permit also mentioned petroleum coke, although the president of the company’s North American operations has said the plant will not use it.
The molten rock is then spun into “stone wool” fibers to create fire-resistant insulation. According to the Denmark-based company planning the factory, it will be a 460,000-square-foot facility on 130 acres and employ about 150 people in positions ranging from management to the production line.
And under approvals from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the plant is permitted to emit more than 138,000 tons per year into the air of pollutants like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, particulate matter, formaldehyde, and sulfur dioxide.
Builders broke ground in June, and construction on the plant is expected to begin in October with production scheduled to start in 2020.
West Virginians in Jefferson County have recently begun to wake up to the possibilities of the plant and taken to city councils and the county commission in numbers to protest. As of this week, those living in western Loudoun and environmentalists are only starting to into to the project and its potential impacts east of the Blue Ridge. Chris Tandy, co-chairman of the environmental group 350 Loudoun said he’s still getting up to speed.
“It’s close enough that Loudoun could get polluted by it, and it sounds like it’s a big emitter,” Tandy said. And Cheri Shields, owner of Hidden View Bed and Breakfast in Hillsboro, said if it impacts Loudoun, it could hurt businesses like hers. She said “pollution does not know boundaries.”
“If the counties in the area are no longer desired, we’ve killed the wedding industry, we’ve killed the agricultural industry, we’ve killed the tourist industry, so that’s really going to impact everybody,” Shields said. “Let alone our health, and the health of these farmers, their animals as well as crops.”
Loudoun supervisors, like their constituents, have only begun to hear the concerns. Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) said he hadn’t heard of the plant, and board Vice Chairman Ralph M. Buona (R-Ashburn) said he’d had about 10 emails, mostly from people in West Virginia. But with the decisions being made across a state line, it’s not clear what impact if any Loudoun lawmakers can have.
In West Virginia, more than 5,000 people—almost 10 percent of the population of Jefferson County—have joined a Facebook group, “Citizens Concerned about Rockwool-Ranson, WV,” sharing their concerns about the plant or just trying to find out what’s going on. West Virginians have worried about the plant’s 21-story-tall smokestacks, its location within 10,000 feet of four schools, and its 24/7 operation plans. And they have begun working to stop the Rockwool plant at every step of the process—including Monday night at a meeting of the Charles Town City Council, which controls the sewer system the plant would use.
One of the founders of the Facebook group, Leigh Smith, told the City Council if the plant comes in, she and her two young children will be moving out.
“I am not willing to take the chance of them going to school within two miles of this plant for 13 years,” Smith said. “I am not willing to take the chance with their health.”
Other shared similar views, including Ned Marshall whose health is fragile after having a double lung transplant. He wears a mask to protect himself in his home, which is two miles from the plant.
“This plant is an existential threat to me,” Marshall said. “It will kill me. It’s a death sentence. And I am not the only one.”
Charles Town council members worried that they may face legal ramifications if they refuse to extend sewer service to the plant, but delayed action until October while they gather more information and confer with their attorney.
And Charles Town Mayor Scott Rogers said a decision on that plant could set the area down a new path of industrialization, with more than a thousand acres of potential industrial park near that same location.
“What I’d like us to do as a county is ask, do we want to go down this road,” Rogers said.
Trent Ogilvie, president of Rockwool’s North American subsidiary ROXUL, said the criticisms the company’s plans have faced have surprised him.
“The criticisms and comments we’re hearing is not the Rockwool I recognize,” Ogilvie said. “It’s not the company I’ve worked for for 23 years, it’s not the manufacturing environment that we have.”
Following reports of growing concern about the plant among West Virginians, company representatives scheduled media interviews with Ogilvie Wednesday in the company’s Kearneysville office.
He pointed to the federal and state environmental regulations the factory must meet, and said the company’s other American factory in Mississippi has never violated those regulations or drawn complaints from the community. There, the factory is neighbored by facilities for a bottling company, Post Foods, Volvo, and by homes.
And he said he was surprised people felt surprised by the plant, which at this point has almost all the permits it needs to begin construction and operation. He said the company has placed ads in local newspapers and been to community events. There has also been intermittent coverage of the plant in local newspapers.
Nonetheless Ogilvie said the company would be getting “more proactive” in its outreach.
“We respect those concerns, and we want to address them as best we can,” Ogilvie said.
In statements announcing the plant, Rockwool Group President and CEO Jens Birgersson said, “We aim to continue double-digit growth in the United States, and this new factory will play a major role in ensuring we meet the growing customer demand for non-combustible stone wool insulation in this market.”
And West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said, “West Virginia welcomes Roxul as the newest international member to join our business community.”