Rockwool controversy sparks mass resignation of West Virginia development board

The Rockwool factory is being built on the site of a former apple orchard, in Jefferson County, West Virginia. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
WASHINGTON — Twelve members of the Jefferson County Development Authority, which played a major role in luring the Denmark-based Rockwool company to build an insulation factory in a former apple orchard in West Virginia, have resigned en masse.

Since the June groundbreaking for the round-the-clock factory, thousands of neighbors and environmental advocates have voiced concerns and opposition to its construction, fearing air, water and sound pollution. At the factory, basalt rock will be melted into molten lava and spun into fibers used in manufacturing rock wool insulation.

“These board members all came to the same conclusion that a segment of the county desires a different direction for economic development and that different direction should be led by new board members,” said authority board Chairman Eric Lewis in an email sent to fellow board members.

Lewis and 11 other members submitted letters of resignation to the Jefferson County Commission late Friday morning, effective one minute past noon.

The JCDA, established in 1979, has the goal of attracting businesses to Jefferson County. The 20 members of the board of directors are unpaid, comprised of local business people, and representatives of municipal governments, who are appointed by the Jefferson County Commission.

WTOP reached out to Lewis to see if he could elaborate on the circumstances behind the mass exodus. He responded, “I’ve got no comment on that — my resignation letter speaks for itself.”

The Jefferson County Development Authority is one of several entities whose combined efforts resulted in negotiating the deal to bring the Rockwool plant to the county, in the city of Ranson.

The Jefferson County Commission entered into an Oct. 3, 2017, Payment in Lieu of Taxes Agreement, and the authority committed to obtaining bond financing for water line improvements.

In return, Rockwool promised to invest approximately $150 million to construct and operate its facility and to create approximately 140 jobs. Jefferson County is the wealthiest county in West Virginia, which is one of the poorest states in the country.

Opponents to the factory have argued heavy industry is not compatible with life in Jefferson County, which is one of the tourism drivers in the state, known for its natural beauty and historic attractions, including Harpers Ferry. Many Jefferson County residents commute to jobs in neighboring Loudoun County, Virginia, and other counties in the national capital region.

“Reasonable people should be able to disagree respectfully on that direction,” wrote Lewis to the other authority members. “Unfortunately, that has not been the case.”

In September, watchdog group Jefferson County Vision filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson County Development Authority, saying the deal to bring Rockwool involved no-bid contracts, violated ethical guidelines and was rushed through in an effort to deny the public an opportunity to review and provide input. The case is ongoing in circuit court.

In a statement, Michael Zarin, vice president of communications for Rockwool Group, told WTOP that the resignations will not derail the construction of the plant.

“We want to commend the entire JCDA for their commitment to public service and the good work they’ve done for Jefferson County. It’s unfortunate that so many members have felt obliged to resign, but we want to be very clear with the community that we will fulfill the commitments we have made and will continue to build the factory, make the investment, and create the jobs and economic activity that we’ve said we will,” Zarin said.

After months of debate between Rockwool supporters and opponents — much of it played out on Facebook — one of the 11 members who resigned spoke with WTOP on the condition of anonymity.

The member said all of the 11 members who resigned had planned to vote Wednesday to approve a $7 million public bond to fund the water line to the Rockwool factory.

But, the vote was canceled shortly after Jefferson County Commission President Josh Compton posted on Facebook: “If there are members of the JCDA that are not comfortable voting or feel they need more information before making a decision, I think it would (be) absolutely prudent to request an extension of the vote timeline rather than making a decision they may or may not be confident doing.”

“It was going to pass overwhelmingly,” said the Jefferson County Development Authority member. However, after reading Compton’s post, the source said Rockwool supporters on the panel felt Compton had put them in a politically unwinnable position.

“We decided we were done with this mess,” said the member. “If he thinks that’s what voters want, he can have it.”

Contacted by WTOP, Compton explained his willingness to delay the water line vote: “The election results (in which several local politicians who campaigned in opposition to Rockwool won) further reinforced the fact residents are not happy, regarding the Rockwool plant. So, rather than push forward the next day with a vote on the water line, I put forth my opinion regarding that vote on Facebook. It was ultimately up to the JCDA whether or not they wanted to hold that vote.”

In a tense, polarized environment, Compton thanked the departing members for their service.

“I have found no evidence whatsoever that has suggested anyone did anything to deliberately harm or try to harm our county,” he said in a Facebook post. “They were merely trying to bring jobs and businesses to our community and I cannot fault any members of the JCDA for trying to do just that.”

The county will soon accept applications for new authority members, Compton said.

“Let’s look toward the future and where we want the county to go from here on out. There’s no need to continue the harsh online rhetoric with your fellow neighbors. We all live in this community, so let’s work together and shape it into a place we all can be proud of.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

The Rockwool factory is being built on the site of a former apple orchard, in Jefferson County, West Virginia. (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)

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