Rockwool factory site meets standards, but new sinkholes discovered

WASHINGTON — Environmental inspectors at the Rockwool insulation construction site have found 10 potential sinkholes at the Jefferson County, West Virginia location where a controversial 24-hour-a-day manufacturing plant is being built.

WTOP has learned inspectors from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection “inspected 8 potential sinkholes that have been discovered,” during an Oct. 2 review of the former apple orchard, where the heavy industry factory is being built, near state Route 9.

Two more sinkholes were found in an Oct. 11 reinspection, but the WV DEP also determined the Denmark-based company had satisfactorily corrected conditions that had resulted in “unsatisfactory” rating during a Sept. 11 inspection, and had taken steps to mitigate the new sinkholes.

When the factory is completed, Rockwool will melt basalt rocks into molten lava, which is spun into fiber used in the manufacturing of stone wool insulation. The West Virginia factory will be the company’s second plant in the U.S. — the other in Byhalia, Mississippi.

In addition to concerns about emissions from the plants stacks — one being 21 stories high — opponents to the factory say the company is failing to ensure protection from stormwater runoff.

Residents and environmental advocates worry that much of West Virginia’s topography includes karst, which can be slowly dissolved by water.

Jefferson County Vision, an advocacy group which has filed a lawsuit opposing the factory, has been critical of the company’s protection of nearby groundwater.

“Sinkholes are problematic because they connect surface water to groundwater, allowing sediment and any potential contaminants to enter the drinking water supply,” JCV board member Lori Maloney told WTOP. “Sinkholes were recently found in a water reuse pond and also in sediment ponds, which defeats the purpose of each.”

“Sediment ponds are specifically constructed to protect stream and ground water quality by capturing and slowing down the release of sediment-laden water from the site; any new, unmitigated sinkholes are potential avenues to contaminate drinking water supplies.”

Michael Zarin, vice president of group communications for Rockwool issued a statement to WTOP: “Sinkholes are a well-established phenomenon in West Virginia and many other states — according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the entire state of Florida is a karst geology. Sinkholes are an issue to be managed and mitigated, and that’s what we’re doing on-site. In fact, the DEP (confirmed) we have properly mitigated the identified sinkholes.”

In its Oct. 11 review, WV DEP said Rockwool had stabilized a loose pipe in a sediment basin, and properly installed a secure perimeter for stormwater and repaired water drains that would carry away stormwater.

Rockwool has said it expects the factory to be operational in 2020, and will provide 150 jobs.

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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