Rockwool, the company behind a controversial manufacturing plant, sued the Jefferson County Board of Education on Friday over the BOE’s offer to buy property off Rockwool for a student center.
In a letter dated Tuesday, lawyers representing the Board of Education wrote to Rockwool with an offer: $1.36 million for 194 acres to develop a Regional Student Support Center. The property would include “ADA accessible athletic facilities for special needs populations,” a STEM center for gifted services, a therapeutic center for social emotional support and a parent resource center, among other things.
“Over the past decade, Jefferson County Schools has experienced a significant increase in both the number of students and the level of need of students served. In particular, the intensive needs of students requiring special education services,” the school board wrote in a news release about the proposed center.
In the letter to Rockwool, the lawyer invited any questions “regarding the condemnation process.”
Three days later, on Friday, Rockwool filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia, arguing the county board violated Rockwool’s state and federal constitutional rights as they pertain to due process, equal protection and takings. The BOE already has 150 acres in Ranson it purchased in January 2018 that would be suitable for the Regional Student Support Center, Rockwool’s lawyers wrote.
The board is “bowing to public pressure created and fueled by half-truths and speculation,” the lawsuit states. They’ve asked for a preliminary injunction or restraining order, according to court documents.
“The BOE’s motive is transparent: by threatening to condemn Rockwool’s property, the BOE intends to prohibit Rockwool’s lawful activities over which the BOE has zero regulatory authority,” the lawsuit states.
Rockwool, a Danish company, has proposed a 460,000-square-foot coal- and gas-fired manufacturing plant for Jefferson County, in the state’s Eastern Panhandle. When it’s built, the plant will create stone wool insulation using milled coal and natural gas to melt rock, creating a lava-like material that’s spun into woolly fibers.
This plant is permitted to build two 200-foot stacks and other smaller stacks, and would use between 100,000 and 125,000 gallons of water a day.
The plant will be built across the road from North Jefferson Elementary School and has clearance to emit potentially hazardous material, like formaldehyde, and particulate matter through smokestacks.
The project was formally announced in 2017, and development has included a series of agreements with state and county entities, such as a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement that allows the Jefferson County Development Authority to hold the title to the 130 acres and lease it back to Rockwool, which the City of Ranson and Jefferson County’s BOE, sheriff, assessor and county commission all signed.
As residents in the county have learned about the plant, they’ve continued to battle the project in grassroots opposition and legal opposition. Recently, a group traveled to Denmark, where Rockwool is based, to oppose the project. Residents cite concerns about the detrimental impact chemicals like particulate matter and formaldehyde might have on the county’s booming agricultural and tourism base. They’ve also expressed acute concern over the plant’s proximity to the elementary school.
The school board and Rockwool have agreed to do an independent human health risk assessment and have air monitoring stations that would cost $1 million — “all to confirm what state and federal regulators at the United States Environmental Protection Agency and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had already concluded: the facility would not pose a risk to human health,” the lawsuit states.
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has maintained that there’s “no scientific evidence” the facility could hurt human health or the environment, but issued a Notice of Violation in October to Rockwool after it violated environmental rules during construction. And though Rockwool repeatedly said it’s never received a Notice of Violation from its other plant in Mississippi, environmental records show the company received a Notice of Violation from state regulators there in October 2016.
A spokesman for the BOE said the board received the suit about 3:45 p.m. Friday and wouldn’t yet comment. Rockwoool’s lawyers sent a prepared statement, calling the BOE’s decision to condemn the property a “blatant abuse of its power.” Rockwool’s lawyers are asking the BOE to pay attorney’s fees and costs, and have asked for a jury trial.
The company’s expenses are mounting, including on its water line extension that will ultimately help service the school, the lawsuit states. According to the lawsuit, Rockwool has already funneled $47 million into the project for permits, construction and utility line extensions.
“Then, on April 9, Rockwool learned the BOE’s contractual promises and negotiations were simply a charade,” the lawsuit states.