Last month, the Danish insulation manufacturer Rockwool planned to introduce itself on a global stage as a green consumer brand. As a platinum sponsor of Climate Week NYC, Rockwool’s CEO addressed the opening ceremony to expound on the importance of their products for improving energy efficiency.
The debut was hijacked by protesters from Jefferson County, where Rockwool plans to build a heavily polluting factory. The demonstrations at the event, with “Toxic Rockwool” signs, and on Twitter, with the #toxicrockwool hashtag, were so effective that Julia Rockwell, a featured speaker, clarified that her last name is not Rockwool to laughs from the audience. Instead of establishing themselves as a green business, they came across as a toxic brand.
The unpopular Rockwool factory is much more than a local issue. It highlights the profound and potentially lasting impact of the Donald Trump presidency, the asymmetrical warfare between activists and industry on social media and, most importantly, the midterm dynamics that could shift the balance of power in the United States Senate.
Jefferson County is home to Civil War history and majestic natural beauty at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Party affiliation of the 40,000 registered voters is about evenly split between Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
In the Trump wave that swept West Virginia in 2018, many municipal, county and statewide seats were won by Republicans. President Trump was so popular in the Mountain State that Gov. Jim Justice announced that he was rejoining the Republican Party at a Trump rally in Huntington on Aug. 3, 2017, in order support the president and enact his program.
A cornerstone of this program was to exploit fossil fuel repositories and expand heavy industry. As I related in a piece for Forbes, “Rockwool: Three Truths and a Lie about the Economic Development Game,” the siting of the Rockwool plant across the road from an elementary school required a rapid, coordinated assault executed at every level of government that exploited and weaponized a planning and zoning system designed specifically to prevent such a development.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Beginning in the 1980s, population loss from the coalfields and heavy manufacturing was partially offset by an influx of urban professionals and retirees in the eastern panhandle. West Virginians have turned to the development of education and telecommunications, among other strategies, to create a more modern social and economic climate in their state.”
Jefferson County is at the eastern tip of the Mountain State, solidly in the Washington, D.C., Major Metropolitan Area, at almost 100 percent employment, rising wages and strong economic growth driven by tourism, education, government workers, light industry, services and agriculture. The Rockwool project would employ a maximum of 150 people and displace a popular mixed-use, transit oriented development that would provide hundreds of homes and about 3,500 jobs.
Jefferson County is the only county in the state ranked as “competitive.” Fifteen West Virginia counties are “distressed” and 15 are “at risk.” The town of Ranson, in Jefferson County, was one of only two cities in the country, out of 1,700 that applied, to receive smart-growth initiative grants from all three participating federal agencies: the EPA, DOT and HUD.
All of West Virginia benefits from the taxes paid by Jefferson County. Dragging our county backwards into heavy industry, throwing incentives at polluters creating new future brownfields on the ones we are redeveloping, required a perfect storm of arrogance, ignorance and greed from Charleston, through Charles Town to D.C.
While elected officials come and go, the Rockwool plant will spew hundreds of thousands of tons of toxic emissions each year for decades, driving away a smart, modern high-growth economy, a monument to the callousness of our local county, state and federal administrations.
While the Justice administration and Rockwool maintain their hardline stance that the factory will be built, its prospects could fade as rapidly as Trump’s wall.
An active citizen group of about 10,000 Facebook members has formed a nonprofit legal defense fund called Jefferson Vision to stop the Rockwool project. They’ve built an impressive body of work demonstrating conflicts of interest, zoning irregularities, contract improprieties, flaws in air pollution models and environmental and historical impact issues. But the judicial system is slow and the plant could be built and operating before the courts can act.
This makes Sen. Joe Manchin the possible, though unlikely, hero of a broad coalition of business and environmental interests opposed to the factory. Manchin is only a few points ahead in the polls against Patrick Morrisey, the laissez-faire West Virginia Attorney General, in a race that could determine the balance of power in U.S. Senate.
Manchin held a shovel at the groundbreaking ceremony for Rockwool, but like some other public officials, has backed off on his support for the overwhelmingly unpopular project. Manchin has called for a stakeholder summit to be held this week, including citizens, Rockwool, the DEP, EPA, West Virginia Development Office, Jefferson County Council, Charles Town and the Town of Ranson.
Manchin is in a politically fraught position with his vote to confirm Kavanaugh. He won’t win new supporters and is likely to depress turnout by alienating his base. With the two candidates slugging it out on Manchin’s support for pre-existing condition coverage and higher wages for teachers against Morrisey’s ads painting Manchin as an ally of Obama and Hillary, the Rockwool controversy gives Manchin an opportunity to mobilize an army of single-issue voters in a swing county without impacting his appeal to the rest of the state.
An exit strategy for Rockwool from Jefferson County could be Manchin’s October Surprise.