Loudoun Supervisors See Few Options to Challenge WV Rockwool Plant

Amid mounting pressure from residents on both sides of the state line for the Loudoun County government to help stop construction of a manufacturing plant in Jefferson County, WV, Loudoun supervisors see few options to fight it.

The Danish company Rockwool melts rock to spin into mineral wool insulation. It is planning a 460,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Ranson, WV, about nine miles from the Loudoun border.

Supervisors had asked county staff members for an overview of where the planned Rockwool plant is in its extensive regulatory process and what they could do about it. The factory has drawn massive outrage and protests from people in West Virginia and increasing alarm in Virginia, in large part due to the tons of toxic chemicals it may spill into the air each year.

But a review of regulatory hurdles found what people in West Virginia already knew—the plant has almost all of the permits it needs, and has already broken ground. The American branch of company based in Denmark still needs some types of environmental permits from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, a connection to the Charles Town sewer system and the Jefferson County water system, and building permits from the City of Ranson.

And Loudoun has little obvious leverage from across state lines. The plant is under West Virginia jurisdiction, and the only formal process available to the Loudoun County government appears to be asking the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to make a complaint through the federal Environmental Protection Agency—after the plant is operational.

The board was briefed on the situation Tuesday night.

Some supervisors seemed to step back concerns about Rockwool. Supervisor Geary M. Higgins (R-Catoctin) asked how the levels of pollutants produced from the plant would compare to the levels of those substances occurring naturally, making a comparison to prehistoric fish.

“They found what was considered to be high levels of mercury in fish, and everybody was very concerned about that, and it caused big problems with seafood and people eating fish,” Higgins said. “Then they found a prehistoric fish … and they ran a test on it and the exact same levels of mercury occurred in that fish that was umpteen million years old.”

Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles) said if the plant meets environmental standards in West Virginia, it is unlikely to fail those tests in Virginia.

“I think one of the challenges with something like this is we see that there’s a certain amount of tons of pollutants that are going to be released as a result of the plant, but we don’t have a lot of context for that,” Letourneau said.

Others pointed out the plant does seem to conform to federal Environmental Protection Agency standards. A similar plant in Mississippi has had only one violation, apparently unrelated to pollution levels. The Ranson plant is also required to maintain constant monitoring.

“In that continuous monitoring of their permit limits is the kernel of knowing that it meets the health standards,” said EPA environmental engineer Himanshu Vyas.

But County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) pointed out that the company will largely be self-reporting.

“Right now we know whatever numbers we receive will be numbers that Rockwool will give,” Randall said. “That’s unsettling.”

County staff members said a more in-depth consultant assessment of the factory’s potential impacts on Loudoun would cost $195,000 to $265,000. Supervisors voted unanimously to ask the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to undertake that study, and to ask that department to put an air quality monitoring station western Loudoun. Currently, the agency’s only air quality monitoring station is in Ashburn.

The plant is in the city of Ranson, with a population of just over 5,000. That city is unusually shaped by Virginia standards, with irregular boundaries and parcels of land surrounded by the city but not part of it. It extends to the area of the new industrial park—called Jefferson Orchards—by narrowing to the width of Rt. 9 to reach north to include an area known as Bardane. The city annexed that land in 2005.

The City of Charles Town, which borders Ranson, acquired Ranson’s sewer system in June. City council members have not yet decided whether to extend its sewer system to the plant, but they are among many local legislators who have said they don’t think they can refuse the company without risking a lawsuit. An attorney for the company has already threatened lawsuits if the project is stopped.

“We are frustrated up here because there is relatively little we can do to help you,” Supervisor Kristen C. Umstattd (D-Leesburg) told the Loudouners and West Virginia who thronged the meeting to ask supervisors for action. “I think we’re doing everything we can, but this is not where the battle has to be fought. The main battle has to be fought in the federal government, and in Congress and the U.S. Senate, and your state legislature in West Virginia.”

rgreene@loudounnow.com

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