Controversial Rockwool factory melting rocks, set to start shipping
The Rockwool factory, in Ranson, West Virginia, is melting rocks into molten lava, in the production of stone wool insulation. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
In August 2018, Trent Ogilvie, president of Rockwool’s insulation business in North America told WTOP the factory would not be harmful to health or the environment, as opponents launched a passionate attempt to stop the factory from being built on the site of the former Jefferson Orchards, across Route 9 from North Jefferson Elementary School.
Concerns about the possibility of hazardous emissions from the factory’s towers wafting 12 miles from Ranson into the vineyards and other agritourism business of Loudoun County, Virginia, prompted opposition from Board of Supervisors Chair Phyllis Randall.
Despite persistent scrutiny, the factory has been built; more than 100 employees have been hired, and a huge furnace that melts rocks at 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit is operating daily.
Several different rocks, including gabbro, are melted to make stone wool at the Rockwool plant. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Tons of rocks are trucked to the Rockwool facility, where they are stored in covered outdoor bins before being loaded onto a conveyor belt, and transported to the melting furnace.
The furnace Rockwool uses to melt rock is fueled by natural gas. (Courtesy Rockwool)
Much of the concern about potentially harmful emissions from the Rockwool factory was based on burning coal to fuel the furnace.
In July 2020, Rockwool announced its fuel-flexible melting furnace would only use natural gas. Espinosa said coal bins were taken out of the plans, and have never been delivered to the Ranson facility.
“We were able to start up our operations with 100% natural gas,” Espinosa said. “Our CO2 emissions are estimated to be about 30% less than they would be with the combination of coal and natural gas.”
After being melted and put into a spinner, individual rocks become a blanket of rock wool. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
The process in which the cotton-candy-consistency stone wool is turned into a loosely formed blanket is proprietary, according to Espinosa. During the WTOP tour of the factory, no photos were allowed of the machinery used during the melting furnace, spinning, or curing portions of the process.
The cured, cut stone wool is formed into a variety of products. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Large conveyor belts transport the stone wool through the factory, where machines cut them into specific sizes and products.
The Ranson facility is Rockwool’s second U.S. factory; the other is in Byhalia, Mississippi.
Technicians monitor the Rockwool products as they are made and packaged in the factory. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
“We’ve already been able to hire more than 110 new employees,” said Espinosa. “We’ll be ramping up to full staff of about 150 here, over the coming weeks and months.
Throughout the process, Rockwool officials have said the factory would provide good-paying jobs.
Jefferson County is the wealthiest county in the nation’s third-poorest state — West Virginia has a median household income of about $45,000.
“We really couldn’t be happier with the response we’ve seen to our hiring program,” Espinosa said. “And, I think that’s indicative of the growing acceptance we’re seeing in the community.”
Rockwool employees use front loaders to ready the products for shipping. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Even as production ramps up toward 24-hour operation, opponents who fought to stop the factory from being built are now advocating that Rockwool “can and should operate more safely.”
Dr. Christine Wimer, president of the Jefferson County Foundation, is calling on Rockwool to implement processes and monitoring to protect air, water and the karst topography upon which the factory is built.
“If Rockwool truly wants to be the good neighbor it purports to be, it would embrace these changes and engage the concerned public in a good faith way,” Wimer said, in a statement to WTOP.
Even as Rockwool produces and ships insulation product from its new factory, concerned neighbors and environmentalists will continue their scrutiny. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Rockwool paid for installation of two air-monitoring stations at local schools — North Jefferson Elementary and T.A. Lowery Elementary schools
The publicly available air monitoring results from the schools provide hour-by-hour readings of air quality, including measurements of particulate matter, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide.
During the WTOP tour of the plant, Thursday, all readings were in the Good category — the healthiest ranking in the online monitoring dashboard.
A human health risk assessment conducted for Rockwool by CTEH, an environmental consulting firm, in March 2020 found no discernible harm to human health.
“The ‘hazard index’ in relation to the Rockwool facility is more than 30 times lower than the level that would pose any potential risk to human health,” the report concluded. “The cancer risk for students attending the assessed schools in succession is estimated to be approximately 10 times lower than the EPA’s most protective risk threshold of one in one million.”
Espinosa says Rockwool “appreciates and recognizes” that there has been opposition to the factory.
“Our approach has been to be very transparent, not only during the construction phase but, now that we are beginning our startup operation, to help the community understand what they can expect to see here,” Espinosa said.
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