If you heard they were building a new factory in your neighborhood that could send tons of pollutants like formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid into the air, how would you react?
In Jefferson County, the most prosperous county in West Virginia, many neighbors are furious. There’s alarm in Loudoun County, Virginia too. It’s just a few miles away.
Supporters insist the plant is safe and will meet or exceed EPA pollution limits.
The multi-million dollar Rockwool plant is under construction in an abandoned apple orchard near Charles Town.
But the highways of Jefferson County are now littered with signs, a mass movement against a factory that never expected this kind of resistance.
“We have 45 other manufacturing facilities around the world, and we haven’t encountered this kind of local opposition anywhere else before,” said Michael Zarin, Rockwool’s Vice President for Group Communications.
The Danish company’s subsidiary has already spent millions preparing to build the new insulation plant. Rockwool hopes to melt stone into lava on the 136 acre site, and spin it into tough and effective fiber insulation for homes and businesses.
But when neighbors caught wind of the maximum emissions Rockwool would be allowed to send up through its smoke stacks, many panicked.
“Sulphur dioxide, 148 tons per year. Carbon monoxide, 74.1 tons per year,” said neighbor Ned Marshall, reading from a list on a permit issued by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. “It’s going to kill me."
The 72-year-old lived in at Shenandoah Junction his whole life, and his family has lived in Jefferson County since 1795.
“Where the Rockwool plant is going to be is right here,” he said, pointing at a spot a few miles from his home on a map of the county from the 1920s.
The retired painting contractor had a double lung transplant four years ago. He’s convinced the plant is an existential threat to him and to his granddaughter, who will go to school near the site in a few years.
There are four schools within a few miles of the plant.
“I fear for my own life,” said Marshall. “I fear for the life of the schoolchildren and all the other people around here who are vulnerable.”
The fight has turned brutal: vandalism, resignations, an electoral rout of supporters and threats of multi-million dollar lawsuits.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has rejected many of the concerns as overblown.
Rockwool said the amount of pollution that would ever hit the ground is completely safe, even for the most vulnerable people.
“There won’t be a negative health consequence,” said Zarin of Rockwool. “Because if there were going to be that kind of consequence, we certainly would have seen it in one of the other countries, the dozens of communities where we operate, and we just haven’t.”
Even twenty miles away in Loudoun County, Va. there are anti-Rockwool signs going up.
“The wind blows right out of the west,” said Doug Fabbioli, owner of one of Northern Virginia’s most successful vineyards and wineries. “So whatever comes is going to be coming right in on us.”
“The fact that I’m even talking about an issue in another state should tell you how concerned I am about the Rockwool plant going into Jefferson County,” said Phyllis Randall, Chair of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
But is there anything she can do about it? “Truthfully, not a lot, not a lot.”
Rockwool is promising to invest $150 million dollars in Jefferson County, and create 150 jobs, at the plant itself, and many more in the community. That’s earned it some supporters.
“We need jobs for everybody, not just white collar, and I know a lot of people are pushing white collar jobs, but these are high school education jobs that pay well,” said Ray Bruning, an IT worker and member of the Jefferson County Planning Commission.
Both sides are convinced they’ll win.
“At some point, they’re going to need some sort of graceful exit,” said David Levine, who has been one of Rockwool’s fiercest critics. “And the sooner they exit, the less it’s going to cost them.”
“We’re very confident the factory will be built and that it will become a very welcome member of the community,” said Zarin.
The critics are now trying to starve out the factory. They’re hoping to deny it water, sewer and gas lines.
Rockwool said forcing it out would cost the company as much as $100 million, and it’s suggesting someone will have to pay the damages.