Your Sacrifice Zone is My Opportunity Zone
As Naomi Klein stated in the introductory watch-party video, “That is the promise of the Green New Deal. Not just would it allow us to avoid the apocalyptic future that we’re all so afraid of, but that it opens up the chance to build a beautiful present and we all can do that together.”
In Jefferson County, the apocalyptic future and beautiful present are like two parallel universes occupying the same space. We’re in a Twilight Zone episode where the self-interested actions of a few individuals have sent us on a trajectory that, because of a few more actions based on self-interest, accelerates the velocity of destruction. At the same time, the solution that appears so simple and evident to the audience is unachievable because of the compulsive repetition of the key players, unwilling or unable to stop change course.
The drama began on Ranson’s centennial, October 18, 2010, when Ranson landed a unique triple play putting it well on its way toward a “beautiful present.” The US Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency and Housing and Urban Development announced Ranson as the only small city to receive “Partnership for Sustainable Communities” planning grants from all three agencies.
Before the HUD grant, Ranson had 1920s-style “euclidean” zoning that had separate uses for different areas. It was auto-dependent, not walkable and unsustainable. Because Ranson was built without any stormwater drainage plan, all the runoff made its way to the Chesapeake Bay. The grant funding was secured by Sustainable Solutions, a consultancy that serves municipalities across the country founded by Matt Ward of Charles Town, WV.
“Part of the grant was to switch to form-based, or ‘smart,’ codes that were mixed-use. Instead of putting a store way back from the street, put it up on the street with a wide sidewalk,” Ward said of the concept. “HUD gave out about 500 of these grants until Congress killed the program in 2012. $350,000 was awarded to Ranson to fix their zoning, fix the comprehensive plan and make it more sustainable.”
Ranson hired Placemakers from New Mexico to set up three model plans that are typical of what you would address in and around Ranson. They selected an eight-acre former brownfield site of the defunct Kidde Brass Foundry, now Powaton Place, that broke ground in 2013. The second model plan was a zone for a downtown infill project for which they created a whole site plan.
Then they decided to show “how you can do development on a farm that concentrates on an agricultural village but leaves a big green reserve,” as Ward put it, instead of putting the development all over the farm. This model site they selected was the 400 acre Jefferson Orchards.
In 2005, after 40 years in the apple business, the owner David Ralston and manager Ronnie Slonacker were ready to sell. This was pre-recession and Dan Ryan was building vinyl-sided cul-de-sac subdivisions across the county. Since 1999 Ranson had been annexing everything it could and handing it to residential developers like Dan Ryan, but they had reached a saturation point. Ranson knew they didn’t want more residential development that “didn’t make anything better. They’re not revenue positive. They’re not walkable, they’re not good,” as Ward explained it, Ralston agreed. “We’ll take commercial.”
Placemakers noted that the Maryland Area Regional Commuter (MARC) commuter train line to Washington, DC from Martinsburg, WV went right through Jefferson Orchards. The older Duffields station was nothing more than a platform, shelter and gravel parking lot off the smaller Flowing Springs Road in the middle of nowhere. Placemakers suggested moving the MARC station which put it right by Route 9, a highway that Senator Byrd had expanded, and a bike path. The Eastern Panhandle Transit Authority (EPTA) wanted a transfer station and bus warehouse which Placemakers accommodated through a multi-modal design surrounded by a transit-oriented village.
The western section of the development featured a freight railroad, so Placemakers integrated light manufacturing, “Special District Industrial,” into the landscape in such a way as to be compatible with commercial and residential units clustered in the nearby village. The final design for the multi-use, transit-oriented development had the train station and village at the northernmost point of the City of Ranson, fully-annexed, so the project was named “Northport Station.”
Over 400 people participated in the planning, according to Ranson City Manager Andy Blake’s October 24, 2013 memo. “It was a record turnout for such a process in the region,” Blake wrote. “Yet what made this a model process was not the participation numbers. Rather it was how the participation made for better informed, better-tested outcomes, outcomes likely to overcome all the usual challenges confronting even the best ideas when it comes to adoption, implementation and enforcement. That’s because people with the power to advance or undercut the Plan’s effectiveness were partners in the process.”
While the mixed-use transit-oriented development (TOD) plan would have created a windfall of for the Ralstons, it required a sophisticated marketing plan that could attract regional or national developers. A search of the Urban Land Institute database available to members shows a hot market for mixed-use TODs and limited available property for development in the greater Washington DC metro area. Rather than actively market the plan produced by Placemakers under the federal grants, the Ralstons hired Jeffrey Haymaker who put up a few signs but didn’t have the sophistication required to secure a project developer according to a source familiar with the effort.
When Rockwool and Deloitte, their site selection consultant, visited Jefferson County for the first time in January 2017 they looked at two sites, Jefferson Orchards and a property near the Berkeley County/Jefferson County line owned by the Rockville, MD paving and construction firm F. O. Day.
According to a source familiar with the site visit, the nature of the project was not disclosed to owners and agents of sites under consideration but was portrayed as low-impact manufacturing of a green product. For a low-impact project, Rockwool representatives asked unusual questions that raised eyebrows. They asked the distance to the nearest cluster of homes, which was about a half mile. Then they asked the distance to the Hospice of the Panhandle, which was closer.
The site selection team was asked why they didn’t consider Berkeley County, which had more remote industrial sites. The answer was clear. Only Jefferson County was under consideration because it was the only county in West Virginia with zoning. If the site was zoned for industrial, and it received the requisite permits, it could not be stopped.
While the F. O. Day site appeared to have the better water and sewer capacity available for the project, it was in Jefferson County proper and would need to go through the county’s permitting and planning process. In order to avoid going through a countywide process, Rockwool selected the Jefferson Orchard’s site, which had been annexed by the City of Ranson. Rather than negotiating with the five-member Jefferson County Commission and the eight-person Jefferson County Planning Commission, Rockwool just needed the Ranson City Council and Planning Commission to make a couple changes to the zoning ordinances and speed through the paperwork.
“At this point, nobody in Ranson city government knows much about Rockwool,” says Ward. They had seen slick brochures with “‘LEED certified,’ ‘Paris climate accords,’ ‘saving the world,’ ‘committed to sustainability’ printed on them. (Jefferson County Commissioner Jane) Tabb, (JCDA Executive Director John) Reisenweber, Blake, etc. went down (to tour the Byhalia, MS facility that) makes something that saves the world. Air permits, check. Nobody knew how polluting it was going to be. In May 2018 nobody thought it was like the pictures with all the smoke, the smokestacks, nobody thought it was like that.”
According to Ward, Reisenweber had seen major projects going to neighboring Berkeley County and he felt he had to put points on the board. Billed as a $150 million “investment,” Reisenweber wasn’t going to lose Rockwool. He had strong allies in Mark Ralston, a Dallas bankruptcy attorney who had inherited Jefferson Orchards with his brother when his father, David Ralston, died a couple years earlier, and Todd Hooker, a WV Department of Commerce industrial development executive.
The Commerce Department was willing to load infrastructure into Jefferson Orchards for Rockwool as part of a thousand-acre manufacturing zone, and Ralston said “‘Amen brother! Someone with money!’ Manufacturing would build out more manufacturing (so Ralston could unload the property). Ranson said we’d like to get the train station too, and at this time there still a genuine belief (that we were talking about light manufacturing compatible with the mixed-use plans),” according to Ward.
“Reisenweber called the Mayor of Ranson, the City Manager and Assistant City Manager with Deloitte, Rockwool’s site selection consultant and said, ‘we need everything waived,’” Ward said. Blake responded, “‘Go f*** yourself we’re not waving anything… all we can do is live by our code, we’re not waiving the code.’”
Ward said they went back and forth with variations on “‘You’re gonna f*** up these jobs, drop the restriction’ and ‘we’re following the code.’” According to Ward, when previous projects were brought to Ranson, Blake had responded with “we don’t want a polluting source,” which frustrated both Ralston and Reisenweber. So they didn’t tell him it was a polluting source, just that they needed more latitude and they didn’t want to come back for permission again. Instead of adjusting certain limits, they got rid of them.
Because Ward was the only one who would have known what questions to ask and would have seen the scale of the pollution, he was kept out of the process by Reisenweber (in a Facebook message, Reisenweber declined to comment). Ward had lobbied him back when Reisenweber worked for then-Representative Capito, and the two rarely saw eye-to-eye. Ward claims Reisenweber refused to put Ward under a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that would have given him access to information about the company or industry that was sniffing around under the “Project Shuttle” alias. Ward did some digging and guessed it was a Volvo plant that was coming, because he knew Ranson and Jefferson County officials has toured a manufacturing plant in Mississippi, where Volvo had a factory.
Reisenweber collected signatures on the Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) agreement using the constant refrain of “jobs!” in order to lock-in the Jefferson County Council (JCC), Jefferson County Development Authority (JCDA), the City of Ranson, the City of Charles Town and the Board of Education.
The PILOT agreement was approved by the City of Ranson on July 18, 2017. The PSD Application for Permit to Construct wasn’t filed with the DEP until November 20, 2017 with the notice going into the local paper of record two days later. This means the municipal and county public officials were locked into an agreement with Rockwool four months before anyone would have reasonably known that Rockwool was a major emitter, defined as a source of over 100 tons of Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) per year according to Ward.
When Blake originally received the 65-page permit to construct, he assumed it would protect public health because “on the cover of it said ‘Clean Act Air Permit Approved.’ They didn’t open it up to see 92 tons of PM 2.5, they didn’t see 300 tons of phenols and formaldehyde, they didn’t see a thousand tons of criteria air pollutants… they didn’t look at that. And they certainly didn’t look at when the Mineral Wool National Emissions Standards Hazardous Air Pollutants (NESHAP) Act that was updated in 2015 to check if it was strong enough. They didn’t do any of that. They just saw the boxes were checked. Fire Marshall, check. DEP, check,” said Ward.
The better part of a year went by without anyone paying much attention to the progress of Rockwool. Then suddenly, “the week after July 4th, 2018 the Sierra Club’s letter to the DEP went public and July 7th to 9th boom! I read the air permit,” recounts Ward. His role shifted to, “How do I keep everyone calm. I was a crisis manager. I thought, maybe we made a mistake.”
According to Ward, “Andy Blake assumed a Clean Air Act permit meant it was safe for public health. I know that is not what the Clean Air Act does.” Both Blake and Ward read the 684 page PSD and were horrified. The DEP issues “a technology-based permit,” Ward continued, “which says that industry can or will consent to afford the limits of this permit. This permit will take on a smokestack and if you extrapolate out what will come out of it, guess what it’s 1500 tons of pollutants. That’s the permit we’re willing to put on in an industry-led, technology-based standard. If you did a health-based standard, you might go down to 100 pounds, not 1000 tons.”
The week of July 9th, 2018 after the Sierra Club letter, the Facebook group CCAR was growing “from a thousand to three thousand to five thousand to seven thousand. And people were upset, clearly,” reports Ward. “And I didn’t have to tell Duke Pierson and Andy Blake people were upset. People were really upset.”
“I represented Flint Michigan after they were poisoned. And got ‘em $300 million out of Congress which is about a third of what they needed just to fix their media problems, let alone the long-term damage. I know what angry citizens are about. I’ve helped manage angry citizens over environmental issues many times. And with the exception of Flint, as I told (Charles Town) Mayor Scott Rogers and Mayor Duke Pierson, this was the worst I’d seen.”
Locally, “there was a tempest over Huntfield, I was in the middle of that. The white supremacy plaque, I was in the middle. Gay non-discrimination ordinance… people were asking me about Rockwool, is this just the controversy of the year? This one is different. So I said to Ranson you gotta figure out how to get your way through this,” said Ward. “So I was writing a memo to the city. There are 7,000 people in the Facebook group, and I put the computer down to get dinner and I went back and there were 9,000 people in the group.”
The substance of the memo is crisis management, with coaching for the Mayor, City Manager and Assistant City Manager on how to address the issues and communicate with the public. In a footnote to the memo, which was released by the City of Ranson as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Jefferson County Vision (JCV), (). Ward provides this warning:
“For what it is worth, from my own personal perspective, the community controversy, anger, and level of organizing is very high and does not seem likely to subside any time soon. I have been an elected official in Jefferson County, been the subject of many protests, and also organized many protests, including on behalf of “smart growth” and environmental organizations. I have provided professional representation to municipalities dealing with environmental issues (including challenges from, among other groups, the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council), and have been retained by environmental and community groups to organize protests, opposition, litigation, legislative/regulatory, and political action against polluting entities and projects. I have never seen an issue get so hot and so viral as this Rockwool reaction thus far.”
Blake and Erfurt, the Assistant City Manager, had been too clever by half. In their accommodations to Reisenweber and Rockwool when removing protections they’d painted himself into a corner. The zoning changes were made in such a way that Ranson’s ability to deny a permit was limited. The Rockwool project was on auto-pilot. As Deloitte had predicted, once the Air Permit was issued by the DEP, little could be done to stop the project, no matter how damaging or destructive it turned out to be.
“Everybody’s Gonna Die”
Rockwool, the DEP and the West Virginia Development Office quickly convened a private meeting at the Bavarian Inn to tamp down the outrage. Former Jefferson County Commissioner and State Senator Dale Manuel called DEP Secretary Austin Caperton to find out why they were holding the Bavarian meeting in private rather than seeking public comment.
According to Manuel, Secretary Caperton responded, “I don’t want to come all the way out there just to get my ass whupped.” A coal executive appointed to the post in 2017 by Governor Jim Justice, a coal company CEO, Secretary Caperton was charged with “getting rid of needless red tape that hurts job creation.”
Manuel wasn’t the only one concerned with the closed-door nature of the meeting. In an email send on August 6th, two days before the meeting, and made public by the Ranson FOIA, the EPA’s Mark Ferrell noted “a closed door meeting with ‘stakeholders,’ organized by a PR firm? Doesn’t sound kosher.”
According to an attendee of the Bavarian Inn meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, Secretary Caperton was challenged by Blake immediately on entering the room. “People are really upset,” said Blake. “People think that they’re gonna die.”
Secretary Caperton responded, “well everybody’s gonna die. Everybody dies. I guarantee that. Talk to an actuarial, 100% of us will die.”
Another attendee standing nearby chimed in, “are you f***ing serious? Is that what you’re going to respond with? I understand people are upset, well, everybody’s going to die. Your kids are going to die, too.”
When JCV submitted a FOIA request to the JCDA for information “requesting all documents about the meeting, created at the meeting or created after the meeting,” the JCDA refused, citing an exemption for “records associated with the JCDA’s effort to furnish assistance to a new business in West Virginia, which are not agreements signed or entered into by the JCDA that obligates public finds.”
The meeting attendee who spoke under condition of anonymity stated that Ranson Mayor Pierson and City Manager Blake used the meeting to challenge the DEP and Rockwool, looking for “which permit they could rip up without being told by the court we’re putting it back in. How do we get rid of them? Ranson couldn’t figure it out. Permits become vested rights, and you can’t take them back.”
By annexing Jefferson Orchards, changing zoning ordinances and accommodating heavy industry Ranson had unleashed a monster that was turning on its master. The Ranson city officials had no way to stop it.
I spoke with Mayor Pierson outside Charles Town’s City Hall after the December 12, 2018 meeting of the Charles Town Utility Board (CTUB). The City of Ranson and the adjacent City of Charles Town, the county seat, were in the process of merging their sewer systems and putting them under the control of Charles Town. The impact of wastewater from Rockwool and funding for the sewer was dominating the meetings.
Mayor Pierson had built his career at an Alcoa aluminum plant in nearby Frederick, MD. He considered the Rockwool emissions to be minor “compared to what we did.” He believed it was “the job of the DEP” to determine the acceptable level of emissions and enforce the limits that are set, not the municipality or county. He thought it was a mistake to reject Rockwool and feared it would be hard to recruit “any industry at all” to the area if we did.
He was front and center when the plant was first announced on July 6th 2017, proclaiming “I really am truly awful proud of what we have done” in one local paper and providing the more polished quote, “this investment will provide many high-quality jobs, expand infrastructure for future development and broaden our tax base” in another.
A year later, in July of 2018, shortly after the scale of the emissions, environmental impact and risk to public health became clear and the citizens of Jefferson County mounted an oppositional campaign, Mayor Pierson remained defiant, posting a statement ghost-written by Ward reiterating his endorsement of the project. The statement described a public process from March 2012 through 2017 that led to the siting of the Rockwool plant and described the introduction of manufacturing in Jefferson Orchards as an integral part of the plan for Ranson Renewed.
But as an elected official, Mayor Pierson had become clear that it was the overwhelming will of the people to make sure the Rockwool factory is never commissioned in Ranson. “The people don’t want it,” he said. It went against his instincts and better judgment, but if the citizens are against it, he wasn’t going to continue siding with the factory against the people. As an elected official, he believed he had no choice but to end his support of the project. He just isn’t sure there’s anything he can do.
Michael Tolbert, a City Council Member of nearby Charles Town, the County Seat, and Game of Thrones fan suggested in a text message that county residents shouldn’t give up on Ranson. “I ask that you sometimes think of Hodor,” he wrote. “It would help if maybe you folks would spend some quality time at the municipality that started this mess and pass out your checklist, call them names and more importantly build a political infrastructure to plan some changes to their political DNA by the time the next election comes along. If you want to weld shut the back door to heavy industry at Jefferson Orchards, start with the municipality that annexed it.”
Tolbert continued his appeal, “they have shorter meetings and softer seats in their chamber. I think Charles Town is The Vale. Yes, we own the problem but the conflict’s real origin lies in a secret deal that House Tyrell (Ranson) started – always playing puppet master. Part of the problem is that all the County’s cities, the BOE and the JCC, with all its appointed entities that keep getting themselves in trouble, are simply little stovetop kingdoms that have yet to form a single union. Get us all together to build Kings Landing. I guarantee the fights will be twice as interesting. :)”
He also asked for patience. “Charles Town needs downtime,” Tolbert continued. “Winter is coming and we have an uptick in County homeless downtown and in the neighborhoods. We may also have a brewing opioid problem now that Martinsburg is closing down its drug house. We need some time to get our own house in order. City governments are nothing more, nothing less than public service providers on a budget.”
I responded to expect our participation in Charles Town affairs to continue, relentlessly, until the problem was solved. “Rockwool must be stopped,” I wrote. “That’s the beginning. Everything else comes next.”
“That I must say is a concise statement of your position. We have all the problems at the same time. I think we are Bear Island.”
Ranson broke away from the neighboring city of Charles Town in 1910 to pursue its destiny “as the industrial hub of Jefferson County anchored by a booming manufacturing economy.” A year ago, in January 2018, Ranson and Charles Town proposed merging their sewer systems and then completed the deal late last year giving the city of Charles Town control of the wastewater treatment services required by Rockwool.
Rockwool was a non-issue over the spring and summer of 2017. Charles Town City Council Member Mike Brittingham remembers the development being presented as a side note in a May meeting of the Ordinance Committee he chaired. It was presented as “by the way, Ranson is opening up development on Route 9 with an amazing financing package from the state,” he said. “We were 100% on board. There was no controversy. It was not on our radar.”
On August 6th, 2018 all that changed. Charles Town city government held a Building Commission meeting at 4pm, then a City Council meeting at 7pm. There was a major protest at the Building Commission meeting that went down the block and extensive public comment against the Rockwool sewer bond. Before the City Council meeting, Brittingham was standing in the vestibule of the Charles Town City Hall chatting with other council and staff members. They were aware of the protests, but the general consensus was that the Ranson development had “not much to do with us.”
Walking into the August 6th meeting Brittingham was sold on the sewer project. “I was prepared to vote yes on the sewer bond and I still didn’t know much about the user. I just knew we were considering the end project of the sewer line,” he said.
“The people who showed up are not who you would expect,” said Brittingham. “They were not your typical protestors. They were the kind of people who would see protest as a negative connotation. They were clearly not a special interest but representative of the population as a whole.”
Brittingham was impressed with the fact that they all had different perspectives and information. There wasn’t an organized message, but they all “cared about stopping the industrialization of Jefferson County.” They saw “Rockwool as just step one. Not the worst polluter on the planet, no worse than other heavy industry, but it was clear that the state wants to industrialize Jefferson County because it’s the easiest to bring in. Advanced manufacturing, tech, clean high-paying jobs for people without a college education or maybe didn’t finish high school that will boost the economy” would be off the table he said. This was “all that West Virginia could accomplish,” and they were expecting Jefferson County to settle for what the State wanted to bring in.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Brittingham summarized his position. “Sometimes in life you all the sudden have a moment and change your mind. Every time that public hearing comes up I always have my own opinion before it begins but I always try to keep in mind that public hearings are an extremely vital process in forming all of our opinions, as they should be. We can’t be dead set in our opinion before we hear them. And from what I’ve heard tonight, these people are coming here and they’re from Ranson, and they’re from Kearneysville and they’re from Shepherdstown, and you’re right. It’s not our problem. It’s not our problem.
“This is not in Charles Town. We might not have the right to stop it, but I’m a former Marine, I’m a former State Trooper, I’ve been in my volunteer fire department back home since I was 15 years old, although I no longer live there I’m still a member of it. I’ve devoted my life to helping out other people who need help, and these people have been wronged by their representatives that are supposed to be helping them, by the Ranson City Council, by the Jefferson County Commission…
“I watch videos all the time. We’ve all seen one where there’s a fight, or someone’s being assaulted and we ask ourselves ‘why are the four guys standing on the side, who could be intervening and stopping somebody, why aren’t they jumping in. Well damn it, I’ll jump in.”
After the meeting, Brittingham realized that the state of West Virginia “needed a user to start the water, sewer and gas lines, to push the infrastructure. Rockwool was a bad deal financially with all the tax breaks, but that wasn’t the point. The state had the power to do it.” Ranson received over $37 million in direct and indirect incentives according to JCV, including a $2.2M cash grant, an amount about equal to the cost of the real estate purchased from Mark Ralston, to Rockwool in the form of a loan that would be forgiven when the factory employed 120 people. The sewer capacity proposed for state financing was eight times what was needed for Rockwool.
By the end of the August 6th meeting, Brittingham “was feeling like I was taken advantage of” and had been “left in the dark. After hearing the public comment and starting to piece together how we got to here, I moved to reverse course.” Brittingham realized that certain county and municipal staff members and appointed officials were working their own plan in the background and pressuring elected officials by scheduling meetings as quickly as possible and disclosing as little as possible.
“When I got home that night I sat in my garage until the early hours of the morning and watched over the recordings from various meetings and I started to piece together my feelings about the meetings in the months prior. I wondered at the unusual pace and frequency, and I started to remember back to uneasy feelings in those meetings, information that was omitted, comments at committee and other council meetings. I saw how the same individuals that had pushed for frequent meetings seemed visibly upset by the prospect that project could be delayed and the company could change course.” That night Brittingham placed calls into the early morning to colleagues that were still up “to see if others had the same feelings, to see if mine matched up with theirs, to see if we may been taken advantage of or persuaded to do the wrong thing.”
Over the next month, Brittingham dug into the details and asked questions. After bearing the brunt of Brittingham’s grilling at the the September 4th, 2018 Charles Town City Council meeting, Bjoern Andersen, the Senior Vice President for Operations visiting from Denmark, stated that “If you actually got to know us, you would see we are not the devil in disguise.”
Brittenham replies, “I would disagree with you on that. When I said 18 tons of pollutants in this county prior to you coming here I was corrected. It was 18 pounds, less than my cat weighs. To be honest, 550 tons is a three million percent increase in pollutants. And so while I agree you have met the qualification, it’s just simply an industry we have never had to rely upon, that has never helped us in this county at any point, and we’ve watched it help deteriorate the rest of West Virginia and we don’t want it here. That’s all I’m simply saying.”
Brittingham concluded by stating, “while you’ll do everything in your power to get that plant here, I’ll do everything in my power to oppose it.” For about five seconds, Brittingham locked eyes with Andersen. He told me later it felt like 20 minutes, and in almost any other context would have escalated into physical violence.
Meanwhile, Rockwool went on a charm offensive, taking one council member on a tour of Jefferson County to see the areas of poverty and promising to provide charity. The council member, Michael Tolbert, described the conversation to a local paper as “quiet,” “civil” and “respectful.” Tolbert then extended the satanic metaphor system initiated by Andersen in his confrontation with Brittingham. “I did check,” he added, “but I detected no wings, no fangs, no sulphur smell… They are humans.”
Shaun Amos, a nurse who lives in Harpers Ferry, responded to Tolbert in his public comment at the November 5th, 2018 meeting of the Charles Town City Council. “Well, I would tell you if Satan really had horns and a tail and a pitchfork precious few people would end up in the fiery pit. Satan himself is a liar and these people are liars.” He then went through a litany of untruths and false statements by Rockwool about health concerns, complaints and irregularities at their factories across the globe.
According to Nicky Heim, a resident of Charles Town, the lies from Rockwool have become so prolific her documentation now stretches to over 40 pages. After she mentions a few in her public comment, Mike Brittingham conducts a master class in exposing misinformation. Rockwool Vice President USA Operations Peter Regenberg has provided information for the water consumption and discharge at the Byhalia, MS plant to give Charles Town a sense of what to expect.
During the questioning, Regenberg admits that the Mississippi plant doesn’t have it’s own flow meter, so it’s possible that the information he has provided is incorrect. He makes claims about the use of rainwater, which Brittingham reveals is prohibited in Rockwool’s contract with Jefferson Utilities, Inc. (JUI). From the numbers provided by Regenberg, Brittingham points out that it is likely Rockwool is violating their discharge permit during any month when the discharge is above average.
Brittingham summarizes the the frustration of the Charles Town City Council by stating, “to my fellow council members, the reason I’m so upset is because every time we see a fact, every time we see something documented, every single time we see something written on paper, and we ask a question about it because it doesn’t add up we’re told we’re not supposed to believe what we’re reading, that the words don’t mean what they mean, that the numbers don’t mean what they are. How many times are we going to let this company tell us something that is absolutely not true. And we sit here and we prove it in these meetings, at least I attempt to, and we don’t vote on this, we don’t talk about it, we do talk about it, we have to talk about the elephant in the room, why are we still dealing with this issue. I truly don’t understand it. Just in this short presentation alone, yes of course I’m prepared I’m prepared to show that every time he throws something out there oh we disagree with these numbers we disagree with that i’m not prepared to talk about that its right here, it’s right here. I’m sorry. I’m upset. This conversation needs to take place.
“The constantly changing (and increasing) numbers for Rockwool’s wastewater discharge are a clear case of why the people of Jefferson County cannot trust Rockwool,” wrote citizen researcher Addison Reece in a Facebook post by way of introduction to the reference materials.
The NPDES permit application from October 2 said ‘a maximum of 14,900 Gallons Per Day’ (GPD) will be discharged as non-domestic wastewater.
The public notice and modification from October 31 has a letter from the DEP stating, ‘The non-domestic wastewater approved for acceptance consists of Reverse Osmosis (RO) reject wastewater and water softener wastewater…The maximum daily volume accepted shall not exceed 17,000 gallons per day.
Rockwool sent a letter to the Charles Town Utility Board, dated January 24, 2019, which said, ‘Rockwool’s anticipated sanitary sewer discharge is 27,550 gallons per day.’ When questioned by CTUB, Rockwool said they would send a correction letter. The correction, dated February 5, 2019, states that ‘Rockwool’s anticipated sanitary sewer discharge is 46,800 GPD, consisting of 14,000 GPD domestic sewage and 32,800 industrial sewage.
They’ve been evasive and inconsistent about their wastewater discharge,” Reece concludes, “but the more disturbing question is, what’s actually going to be in this water and how can we trust them to disclose the facts?”
When Brittenham tries to bring forward a vote to pull back the sewer permit application from the DEP, the parliamentarian determines they can’t do that now, but Brittenham can put it on the calendar for the next meeting. At issue is the authority of the Charles Town Council to act directly on an application submitted by the Charles Town Utility Board (CTUB), a separate organization, to the DEP. CTUB was responsible for the engineering, the Building Commission for the approval of the sewer line and the City Council for the financing. At their next meeting, the Charles Town City Council voted to postpone consideration of the sewer bond until after the new year.
At the next Charles Town City Council meeting, December 3rd, Brittingham’s instincts prove accurate. John Stump, the utility bond attorney from Steptoe & Johnson who represents many of the parties to the PILOT agreement and appears to have orchestrated some of the legal maneuvers at the municipal, county and state level, Hoy Shingleton, CTUB counsel and Kristen Stolipher, CTUB assistant utility manager and longtime former CTUB board member, revealed under questioning that Ranson had already spent $1 million on the project which, with $42,000 in interest, $25,000 spent by an engineering firm and $9,000 for the work performed by Hatch Chester in pursuit of a 1,000 to 1,400 acre industrial zone, had secretly become obligations of the City of Charleston with the consolidation of their water districts, not disclosed in the due diligence materials provided over the course of the merger. Members of the unwitting Charles Town City Council were visibly upset.
An observer of the exchange posted on Facebook “LMAO when Kristen Stolipher started to talk I was sitting behind John Stump OMG the dude about upset the chair and kicked over 2 of his water bottles to get to the podium to shut her up. And he had this giant boot on his foot falling over people getting there. Stump then states ‘I accept full responsibility for you all not knowing about that $1 million.’”
When the DEP came to town the next month (https://youtu.be/-6B4PIIJYes DEP CTUB) for public comment on CTUB’s application for a wastewater National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permit at the Ranson Civic Center to serve Rockwool, Jefferson County turned up in force. Over three dozen individuals provided testimony asked the DEP to reject the permit, and many called on CTUB to withdraw the permit application at their meeting a couple days later on December 12th.
During the DEP hearing David Yaussy, an attorney with Spilman Thomas testified on behalf of Rockwool that “Rockwool has requested sewer service from the utility board, which is required by state law to provide service to any customer in its territory…. For CTUB, the utility board to comply with the law and provide service to Rockwool, it must modify its national pollutant discharge elimination system, or NPDES, permit… The sewer line that will be constructed between Rockwool and the CTUB sewer plant will either be constructed cost free to CTUB customers with the aid of state financing, or CTUB customers will pay for it in future years in accordance with the rules of the public service commission.”
Mr. Patel of the DEP stated to a member of CCAR “‘I know the rule Rockwool is referring to about having to provide services. It’s a PSC rule and it doesn’t apply in this case. Charles Town applied for the permit. Charles Town has the upper hand in this situation. No one can force Charles Town to take Rockwool wastewater.’ I followed up by asking, ‘Do they know that? Rockwool is constantly threatening to sue them.’ He smiled and reiterated, ‘No one can force them to take the wastewater. We’re here because Charles Town submitted the permit.'”
Hoy Shingleton, CTUB’s lawyer, stated that the requirement to serve Rockwool with wastewater treatment is in the PSC rules 5.5. “A sewer utility whether public or privately-owned is under a public service obligation to extend its mains and it’s plant and facilities to serve new customers within its service area who may apply for service.”
Shingleton then editorializes on the benefits of the state bond financing, such as downside protection if ratepayers decrease and industry moves out of town, as well as why the state financing will probably have to be accepted. Then Shingleton states that everyone needs to defer to the DEP on environmental issues.
“We’re not experts and you’re not experts on environmental issues. That’s what the DEP is supposed to do. You’re not the first group of people who say ‘will they sell us short,’ and so forth and so on. The coal companies say the same thing. That’s the daggone system we have, unfortunately. That’s it.” Then he states that we can’t pull the application and refuse to build extend service for lack of a permit.
As several people mentioned in the hearing, the DEP has never refused a wastewater discharge permit, and many many rivers and streams in the state are impaired. Shingleton’s claim that the coal companies have similar complaints about the DEP selling them short is revealing. Shingleton doesn’t want CTUB to pull the application.
Board member Michael Slover summarizes the issue, “Yes we have to take the wastewater that is bathroom waste and stuff like that, but we don’t have to request a modification to accept the industrial waste, correct?” Shingleton disagrees. He says that might be correct from the DEP’s standpoint, but not the PSC. Shingleton states that the PSC would demand a DEP application, and suggests that CTUB wait for the results. Slover also notes that the DEP permit will be based on information provided by Rockwool, which Charles Town has seen is not very complete. “If the data is not great, then the results will not be very accurate.”
Then Shingleton suggests that the best way to deal with Rockwool is on enforcement. “Let’s say Roxul (Rockwool) is built and they go into pretty consistent non-compliance with their discharge permit. I believe there is going to be daily monitoring of their discharges out there. If that were the case what is eventually going to happen is they’re going to be shut down. They’re not going to shut down the treatment plant, you shut them down by turning their water off. You do that now in an extreme case, at a much smaller scale. You have a restaurant in town and have their grease traps cleaned and they’re putting too much stuff in the sewer system you cut the water off and that shuts the restaurant down.”
This is essentially the same argument being made on the air permit. In both cases, it is a technical discharge limit that was negotiated with industry, not based on an environmental or health standard. Any pollution is unacceptable, and unnecessary, to the Jefferson County citizens. The clear message is that there is nothing that can be done to stop it, and enforcement through the same DEP would be a nightmare of bureaucracy. Where Shingleton presents the system as what we have, and what everyone has to work within, the citizens present recognized the futility of worrying about non-compliance when the permitted discharge is already way too much.
Meanwhile, that same day of the CTUB meeting, Tim Ross drove to Charleston to speak to the IJDC and let them know that things aren’t going well in Jefferson County. John Reisenweber, the former JCDA executive director who recruited Rockwool to Jefferson County, is a board member of the IJDC and sits facing Ross.
Ross begins by stating that he’s here “to give some information and ask for your help” about what’s going on with the development over in Charles Town… it was just a little over a year ago that the words were spoken in this office that “Madam Chairman the West Virginia Development Office has received the commission has received and approved an application from the Jefferson County Development Authority for infrastructure for $4.52 million… The richest county in the state got over $13M at zero percent for economic development, that includes the sewer from Ranson. After the approval, there were seven members of this board that expressed their enthusiasm for the entire project. It wasn’t only for Rockwool, which is a Danish company, but that there were hundreds of acres that were primed for development in Jefferson County. So for the next few minutes, I’m going to give you an update on how things are going with the West Virginia Development Office’s plan for Jefferson County. And in a nutshell, it’s not good.”
Ross makes it clear that the industrialization is not wanted by the citizens of Jefferson County, and that the project is being driven by the state of West Virginia. He reads into the record correspondence between municipal, county and state participants that were provided to JCV as part of the Ranson FOIA request. In these documents, Ranson notes that Mark Ralston, as the owner of Jefferson Orchards, is the primary beneficiary and that it will be important that the land be priced to encourage further industrialization.
Ross also lets them know that Charles Town was recently surprised to learn that the “debt-free” project actually came with an obligation of over $1 million incurred by Ranson. Over the course of about 15 minutes, Ross presents an unwanted project in complete disarray.
At the next IJDC meeting, Reisenweber had Ross’ testimony stricken from the record and then the IJDC simply increases the funding to cover the Ranson obligation totaling over a million dollars.
Rockwool was the subject of two separate items on the January 22nd, 2019 Charles Town City Council Agenda. The first is the sewer bond.
Kristen Stolipher of CTUB affirms that the industrial sewer system will have eight times the capacity necessary for Rockwool. Council Member Michael Tolbert draws out the conclusion that the main line extension is less for Rockwool and more for the owners and developers of Jefferson Orchards, who can benefit from future industrial growth.
The initial Ranson sewer extension was to cost $7 million. CTUB increased the capacity and the IJDC raised the bond to $10.5 million for the industrial development. There is a suggestion from Council Member Ann Paonessa that the county lacks wastewater treatment capacity, but this project and bond financing is not going to serve the communities that are growing.
Mike Brittingham adds that CTUB would perform better without state financing. His argument is that the 30-year loan is revenue neutral, whereas if Rockwool is forced to build the capacity CTUB would receive $400,000 in annual revenue after the first 14 years, which it can use to reduce costs for other ratepayers.
Since Ranson already spent $1 million on the engineering and design, it’s likely Rockwool would invest in the larger capacity, rather than a sewer just for itself. The way the PSC rules work, Rockwool would make money when others connect to the line.
The agenda item concluded with the Charles Town City Council agreeing to vote on the sewer bond at the first meeting in March. The City Council has come a long way since the August 6th meeting when the sewer bond was expected to breeze through. Brittingham credits the progress to a functioning council that genuinely “gets along and works toward a common goal.” He realizes that a cohesive municipal governing body is a threat to the state and industrial interests in the current climate. “God forbid,” he says “we do this through the lens of factual information.”
Led by Morgan Sell, a CCAR organizer, Jefferson County citizens have been canvassing in Charles Town collecting signatures on a sewer bond petition. If 30% of the property owners within the city limits sign the petition then a supermajority of 4 out of 5 Charles Town councilmembers, rather than a simple majority, would be required to pass the sewer bond.
Fearing the bond will fail, Rockwool has asked for an estimate from CTUB for the cost of a sewer line that would only handle Rockwool’s capacity, and that they would finance, rather than the full industrial zone plan.
Next, the City of Charles Town joined several towns in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland publicly proclaiming their opposition to the Rockwool factory by passing Paonessa’s resolution. Council Member Nick Zaglifa opposed the resolution as ineffective, divisive and unlikely to “relieve the immense pressure brought to us by the state of West Virginia as far as this project goes.” Tolbert pointed to the fact that the Jefferson County Comprehensive Plan did not include heavy industry. He felt that the plan is important and should have been followed.
Brittingham again mentioned the importance of public comment since August. “We get dozens of people here every single meeting talking. Tonight was literally the first time we’ve ever had anyone in favor of this project show up to speak with us. I take offense when people call this a dividing topic. It’s not. It’s not a dividing topic. It’s controversial, for sure. But it’s not dividing. ‘Dividing’ means you have two equal sides that disagree about something. In this scenario, when the dozen or so people on the internet want to scream as loud as they can about it, it doesn’t change the numbers. The numbers are something like 95 to 5 or a 90/10 issue. The overwhelming majority of our community is against this thing. And we owe it to them. We can’t just sit here day in day out and listen to these people come up here and speak and act like we have no position on this whatsoever.”
Mayor Scott Rogers characterized the issue as central to the values of the community. “I for one think the whole Rockwool thing is immoral. I think building a factory next to an elementary school is about the most immoral thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I think this whole project has lacked transparency, accountability and it all borders on something that no people should ever have to go through. People never had a choice. This was foisted in our lap, I still don’t have all the info on this project shuttle and how it came here and where it’s going. I think Rockwool will fundamentally damage our local economy for a generation to come. It’s going to decimate home values in the region around where it’s going to be built and I for one think we should go on the record and say we don’t want something that’s going to be located next to Charles Town that’s going to fundamentally damage our economy, damage our way of life and fundamentally damage the lives of people throughout this county. While my son doesn’t go to that elementary school, the children of people I know do. Those are our children. We have a responsibility to those children and we shouldn’t leave them hanging. By making this statement people know where we stand. And we have to stand with what is moral and what is right.”
Mayor Rogers told me after the meeting that was duped by Rockwool. “Admittedly I had met with their reps, but they said ‘we’re a sustainable company, we’re a green company.’ They greenwashed what their production was all about.” It wasn’t until “someone had posted the air quality permit as well as other information on the production process” on Facebook that he thought “my god what are we doing here. Once I information on the true nature of what they would be emitting I was horrified.”
Rogers was also shocked at how fast grassroots opposition to the plant materialized “out of thin air.”
“We had protesters up and down the street,” he said. “that was a game changer how the opposition to the plant was united. You have every political viewpoint expressed in the opposition and everyone was willing to work together. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”
The tragedy is that “some peoples rights had been trampled by state government and the JCDA. There was no transparency and a lack of care for the individuals who live in the county, for their rights and their lives.”
Rogers sees the Rockwool issue as illustrative of “how far Ranson has pulled away” from the norms of municipal behavior. “It’s not what I had talked about with Ranson and what they had planned.”
Rogers doesn’t understand why they don’t cooperate more “It’s in their hands. They can stop it. The threats of lawsuits are just to intimidate elected officials. Ranson should do more to pull out. They could do it tomorrow.”
Since the JCDA “didn’t provide the information to any of the parties to the PILOT agreement necessary to make an informed decision, they should all withdraw from the PILOT,” including the JCC, Board of Education and Ranson.
The very basis of the agreement, “with the JCDA owning the plant and leasing it back, is not an appropriate action. It’s troubling.”
Rogers is also “troubled that there is now a litmus test on new appointments to the JCDA, which is not appropriate. We could have it up to 12 board members and have functioning governance, but some commissioners are trying to ensure there is a pro-Rockwool majority” instead of leaving it up to qualified people to make informed decisions.
Rogers would like to see Senator Manchin more involved, with the goal of any meetings to find a more suitable location out of the Eastern Panhandle. Rogers tweeted that the West Virginia legislature and federal government need to look into all aspects of the project, review the lack of transparency and why the community was blindsided. “I still don’t have all the information I need as Mayor, I can only imagine how members of the public feel.”
At some point, he believes there will be a full account that cuts through the “lack of transparency and secrecy.” He concludes it’s a moral issue. “These are our kids, these are our schools. It would be wrong for me as Mayor to leave people behind.”