There is an old saying that good fences make good neighbors. It doesn’t matter what they are doing next door, as long as you can’t see or hear it.
That adage doesn’t work so well when a heavy manufacturing plant moves next door that is going to be spewing tons of chemicals from 200-foot smokestacks. That was the problem faced Oct. 2 by the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors.
At issue is a Rockwool factory that is already under construction in Jefferson County, West Virginia, about 20 miles upwind from Leesburg. Rockwool is a Danish manufacturer that produces an insulation product called stone wool, which is a fibrous material spun from molten mineral or rock materials. The $150 million, 460,000 square-foot facility is expected to employ about 150 people.
In the past few months, the construction has met with strong opposition from people in West Virginia and Loudoun County, including the Concerned Citizens Against Rockwell Facebook group that has 11,600 members. This opposition is based on claims that Rockwool and certain West Virginia government bodies covertly pushed the permitting process to completion without properly informing the public, that the plant will release dangerous levels of toxic chemicals that threaten humans, plant and animals in the path of its discharge, that the plant will be an undue burden on infrastructure – such as water use and treatment and roads that will be used by large trucks hauling raw materials to and finished products from the plant. Another factor, of particular interest to the residents in and around Ranson, West Virginia, is that the factory is being built on land that was annexed based on the expectation that it would be used for a mixed-use development that included retail, housing and office space and provided almost 50 times as many jobs.
The Loudoun County board spent roughly 90 minutes at its Oct. 2 business meeting hearing from more than a dozen citizens vehemently opposed to the factory as well as county. state and federal officials. After a lengthy question-answer session with the government officials, the board approved a two-part resolution. The first part directs county staff to submit a memorandum of understanding to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, requesting a more in-depth analysis and full-compliance investigations of the factory’s potential negative impact on Loudoun County. The second part directs staff to ask the VDEQ to install a second air quality monitoring station near where the air quality would be most affected by the plant’s emissions as they enter Loudoun County.
While these measures are unlikely to appease the outspoken opponents of the Rockwool facility – who want construction halted and the factory built somewhere else – the supervisors agreed that these are their only legal options since the plant is not located in Loudoun County and it has received the required permits from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Blue Ridge Supervisor Tony R. Buffington Jr. asked a direct question: “Does this project meet current EPA standards?”
“Yes, it meets all standards currently on the books with the WVDEP and the EPA,” said Himanshu Vyas, the air quality engineer who reviewed and approved Rockwool’s permit for EPA Region 3. “To the extent that the data was provided and the draft permit I reviewed, I agreed it will not adversely affect people, plants or animals.”
Chair-at-Large Phyllis J. Randall questioned the fact that Rockwool’s numbers were used to evaluate and approve the air quality permits.
“It worries a little that this is all based on information they received from Rockwool,” Randall said. “I find that a little unsettling.”
Vyas pointed out Rockwool operates a plant in Mississippi that produces the same product with the same manufacturing process, and the data submitted by the company in the Ranson application roughly aligns with actual data from that facility.
“The Mississippi plant has never had a problem with air quality (compliance),” Vyas said. “There was one case where they were out of compliance, but that was a paperwork issue – not an air quality violation.”
Broad Run District Supervisor Ron A. Meyer asked about rumors that Rockwool’s permits were rushed through or that the process was hidden from the public.
“I can tell you that I investigated this permit the same as I have any permit over the last eight years,” Vyas said. “The timeline of that process began last fall. That is when Rockwool submitted an application to WVDEP. They made a public notice that they had an application in-house with them. A few months later, on March 27, WVDEP published for comments on the proposed permit. It was a 30-day comment period, which is the standard requirement. It was duly published in the local newspaper on April 24.
“I was the main contact for EPA Region 3 and I provided my comments to WVDEP with regard to the permit levels. I contacted WVDEP with some questions of clarification, and a few days later – on April 30, WVDEP was able to address my questions and to the agency staff. WVDEP went ahead and issued the permit to Rockwool.”
Randall asked what would happen if the plant had a malfunction and released more hazardous pollutants than was permitted.
“They would be in violation,” Vyas said.
“I know, that’s what a malfunction is,” Randall said.
“They would be liable for any damages that resulted,” Vyas said.
The issue of water usage and discharge permits was brought up during the public comments and by Algonkian District Supervisor Suzanne M. Volpe.
They were told those issues don’t involve the EPA or even the WVDEP. Rockwool would be under the guidelines of those utilities.
Having been told the board has no legal avenues to stop the Rockwool plant – if they wanted to do so – the discussion turned to monitoring air quality and enforcement of air quality standards.
Since it would cost the county at least $165,000 to set up and operate its own monitoring program – and would still need to rely on the EPA for enforcement – the board decided to make a request to VDEQ to install a second monitor to protect the western part of the county. Currently, there is only one monitoring station and that is in Ashburn.
Catoctin District Supervisor Geary M. Higgins, who was not in the room but “attended” the meeting via telephone, made the two-part motion, which was approved by a 9-0 vote.