This story was produced in collaboration with In These Times.
JEFFERSON COUNTY, W.Va. — Tracy Danzey wheeled herself through Copenhagen Airport with aching arms, crutches crisscrossing her lap, hands covered in blisters, her left foot bleeding. In November 2019, she had just finished a two-week, 100-kilometer march across Denmark to deliver an important message from the people of West Virginia: ROCKWOOL International, a keystone of Denmark’s green-building industry, was outsourcing its pollution.
“It wasn’t an enjoyable hike,” Danzey, 41, recalls a year later from her home in Shepherdstown, W.Va. In 2005, Danzey, a nurse, lost her right leg and hip to a rare form of bone cancer. She also suffers from thyroid disease. Danzey is intimately familiar with how pollution can destroy a community’s health: She grew up next to a DuPont chemical factory in Parkersburg, W.Va., which produced a Teflon-related chemical linked to kidney cancer, testicular cancer, and thyroid diseases like Danzey’s. The class-action lawsuit against DuPont spanned nearly two decades and led to a $670 million settlement in 2017. (The story was given the Hollywood treatment in the 2019 film Dark Waters.)
So Danzey was paying attention when ROCKWOOL, a producer of mineral wool insulation, broke ground for its new facility in Ranson, W.Va.—right across from an elementary school—in the summer of 2018. (Ranson is less than 7 miles from Danzey’s home, just north of the Washington, D.C., metro area.) Mineral wool plants give off carbon dioxide and hazardous chemicals as volcanic rocks and slag are melted down in large furnaces, spun into wool, bound, cured, cooled, and bagged. ROCKWOOL says it is a “net carbon negative company” because its insulation saves “100 times the energy consumed and (carbon dioxide) emitted in its production.” Local communities bear the brunt of its emissions.
ROCKWOOL had actually started talks with West Virginia officials in 2017, under the name “Project Shuttle,” but the community says it was kept in the dark. (On the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection [WVDEP] website, ROCKWOOL says it used the code name to protect proprietary information and because the project hadn’t been approved.)
When residents finally found out, they started making noise with elected officials and WVDEP. They hired scientists, who raised concerns about ROCKWOOL’s air quality and stormwater permits, and suggested the plant could pollute the groundwater. Community members contend ROCKWOOL never would have attempted such a high-emission factory across from an elementary school in eco-conscious Denmark, fearing public outcry. Indeed, ROCKWOOL has chosen (or transitioned to) a lower-carbon and cleaner production process in plants in Norway and France—a process that is more expensive.
Jefferson County is the wealthiest part of West Virginia. Its residents have money, legal connections, and time—all valuable resources in opposing industry—which are not available to many of their neighbors: West Virginia has the nation’s fourth-highest poverty level. Hundreds united under various groups, such as West Virginians for Sustainable Development and Jefferson County Foundation (JCF), to write streams of public comments, hire lawyers and lobby Congress, file four legal challenges to ROCKWOOL’s permits and subsidies, and organize demonstrations.
The non-violent demonstrations escalated in February 2019, when 11 were arrested for occupying the office of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) after he canceled a town hall about ROCKWOOL. In March 2019, 20 were arrested for blocking the gate to the Danish Embassy in Washington. In May 2019, 24 were arrested for blocking the entrance to the ROCKWOOL construction site. An international boycott of ROCKWOOL (until the corporation abandons the factory and commits to climate justice practices in future projects) has received support from green groups in the United States and Denmark, along with high-profile activists Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and Mark Ruffalo.
But in West Virginia, the demonstrations have gained little traction. The state has long led the country in coal jobs and is known for being industry-friendly. Danzey and many of her neighbors believe the West Virginia location was chosen specifically because of this reputation.
And under former President Donald Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was focused on deregulation (the New York Times compiled more than 100 environmental deregulatory actions)—making sympathy for their cause unlikely at the federal level. The community groups petitioned the EPA but received no assistance—the EPA did not respond except to say it couldn’t “comment on an ongoing or active litigation.” (In court filings, ROCKWOOL has disputed all the claims in the legal challenges.) The residents hope the Biden administration will be different.
In an email, ROCKWOOL’s vice president of communications, Michael Zarin, said ROCKWOOL would not be able to respond to detailed questions from VICE World News and In These Times, that they have been “amply addressed” in the past, and referred to its website and Facebook page. In a fact sheet available on its website, ROCKWOOL maintains it is “following all local, state, and federal permitting requirements and regulations” in Ranson. “We’re passionate about respecting the environment and are continuously working to improve the sustainability of our operations so that we leave the smallest footprint possible,” another fact sheet says.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Trent Ogilvie, the president of ROCKWOOL’s North American business unit, said, “We understand people want to ensure the air they breathe and water they drink are clean and healthy. We certainly would not be in business very long if our operation put air or water at risk.” To the question of whether or not the facility could be built in Denmark, the fact sheet says, “Yes… both in terms of its proximity to schools and residential area and its emissions limits.” Zarin says one of two ROCKWOOL factories in Denmark is “essentially the prototype for the Jefferson County facility” and is located near a European Union-designated nature reserve area; it was built in 1977.
Danzey, from the front porch of her one-story hilltop home, looks across her neighborhood to the school where kids are running around in their homeschool pandemic pods. “It was eye-opening for me,” she says of her Denmark trip. “I haven’t spent a lot of time in other countries where people feel their voices are heard… It hurt to beg (the Danish) government to protect me in my own country.”
Top 1% of polluters
ROCKWOOL’s factory in Ranson is slated to open in months. Construction mock-ups show off its minimalist aesthetic, making it look like a big, white, industrial IKEA. The focus on its sleek facade hides the fact it will stand across the street from North Jefferson Elementary School, one of six schools and daycares within a 2-mile radius that, together, serve one-third of the children in Jefferson County (a chain of small towns that includes Ranson, Shepherdstown, Charles Town, and Harpers Ferry).
Behind the elementary school sits Fox Glen, a neighborhood of one-story houses and mobile homes, one of the poorest parts of Jefferson County. Every Friday, in solidarity with youth climate strikers, activists from across the county protest at the entry of the new construction. While ROCKWOOL has 46 manufacturing plants in 39 countries across Europe, Asia, and North America, the Ranson factory will be only the second ROCKWOOL factory in the United States.
According to Zarin, the regulations governing mineral wool production in the United States “are geared specifically to protect the health of sensitive populations including children, the elderly, and asthmatics.” Zarin says the environmental standards governing ROCKWOOL’s production are theoretical “worst-case” conditions, that “ROCKWOOL’s emissions would be well below the already stringent standards.”
In 2017, ROCKWOOL invited Jane Tabb, a Jefferson County commissioner and dairy farmer, to tour its other U.S. facility, in Byhalia, Miss. Initially, Tabb was impressed. She cited the jobs the new factory would bring (ROCKWOOL says it’s creating 150 new jobs with salaries ranging from $35,000 to $85,000) and endorsed its construction, which is atop a former apple orchard.
But the orchard was essentially an undeveloped field, so every aspect of the project had to be permitted from scratch—for zoning, gas and water/sewer service, roads, air emissions, wastewater, and other elements. When Tabb and other residents started looking into the permits, she says they discovered errors: A stormwater permit failed to take into account the location of private wells, for example. An air permit did not reflect a change in fuel sources. ROCKWOOL did not respond to specific questions about the site or the permits.
Out of her own pocket, Tabb hired air quality expert Patrick Campbell to independently review ROCKWOOL’s 2017 air quality permit, which was approved by WVDEP before residents got wind of the project. The permit notes the factory would be a source of nine different types of air pollution, including known carcinogens formaldehyde and benzene.
Campbell, who is associated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, concluded the air quality permit is “deficient.” It compares Ranson with an inappropriate site—in Garrett County, Md.—to make its conclusions, in violation of EPA guidelines. Garrett County is more than 60 miles away at a much higher elevation than Ranson, with dense forests and different wind patterns. Because of Ranson’s calm winds, emissions might settle instead of blowing away.
Jeffrey Landis, spokesperson for EPA Region 3 (which covers the Mid-Atlantic), tells VICE World News and In These Times, “WVDEP addressed all relevant federal and state requirements, including addressing (EPA) comments, before issuing the final (Clean Air) permit to ROCKWOOL.”
WVDEP did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but former WVDEP secretary (and former coal executive) Austin Caperton defended the air permit in a 2018 statement: “Our scientists and engineers with the WVDEP have reviewed all available data and have assured me there is virtually no other state in America that would have denied this permit.”
The ROCKWOOL factory also includes two 21-story smokestacks that would annually emit 471 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—human-made chemicals known to contaminate groundwater—making the facility the state’s second-largest source of VOCs, just below a Chemours chemical plant. In addition to cancer, these VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness, rashes, shortness of breath, and eye, skin, ear, and throat irritation. According to the EPA’s 2017 National Emissions Inventory, of approximately 70,000 U.S. facilities regulated for VOCs, ROCKWOOL would be in the top 1 percent of polluters, behind international airports, large paper mills, and petrochemical plants. ROCKWOOL did not respond to questions about the plant being in the top 1 percent of polluters.
To power the new factory, ROCKWOOL planned to burn at least 30,000 tons of coal and more than 4 billion gallons of fracked gas every year, making residents wonder why the state would support a factory so heavily reliant on fossil fuels when global trends show the age of oil is over. After local pressure, in March 2020, ROCKWOOL told WVDEP it was removing coal as a main fuel source for melting stone—easy enough, as the air quality permit did not specify how much coal would be used for this specific task. ROCKWOOL claimed the change would result in a “reduction in regulated air pollutants” but still retained its initial permit “in the event operations require reverting back to coal,” which worries residents.
“We all agree using natural gas is an improvement over burning coal,” says Susan April, an air quality expert for JCF. But by not redoing the permit, April says, ROCKWOOL is not being held to the proper standards. “Right now, they sort of have a big bubble over their plant that allows it to pollute a lot more.”
And while natural gas emits roughly half the carbon of coal, its use still creates greenhouse gas emissions. Fracking, the drilling process to capture the gas, also comes with a well-documented history of air and water pollution.
According to Zarin, moving from coal to natural gas comes from “years of research into the highly advanced, fuel-flexible melting technology that ROCKWOOL is deploying in Jefferson County.” To ROCKWOOL’s knowledge, “no one else in our industry has this capability,” which “will reduce (carbon dioxide) emissions from the melting process by around 30 percent,” Zarin says. He did not respond to questions about why ROCKWOOL did not apply for a new permit.
According to JCF, ROCKWOOL could instead use better pollution control technologies exclusive to natural gas. Or it could transition to an electric furnace, like the one ROCKWOOL uses in Norway, which could reduce carbon emissions by 72 percent, according to a report by PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency—built with a climate subsidy from the Norwegian government. ROCKWOOL did not answer why it did not consider an electric furnace in Ranson.
Business owners in Jefferson County worry the giant ROCKWOOL factory, with its heavy traffic and air pollution, will reduce tourism, while farmers and horse breeders worry how air emissions will affect their crops and racehorses. According to a 2019 report prepared for the West Virginia Tourism Office, Jefferson County’s tourism revenue is more than double that of any other county in the state.
Citizens treated as ‘outsiders’
Residents are also concerned about what’s underneath the ROCKWOOL factory: an enormous cave that holds up the region like a turtle shell, known as a karst formation. Karst (and its associated caves) is created by groundwater carving through the porous limestone. Karst is also a hotspot for sinkholes.
In fact, 21 sinkholes have already appeared on ROCKWOOL’s property; at least seven are within the ponds that collect the factory’s wastewater and stormwater runoff. According to the geology report JCF commissioned, if a sinkhole were to collapse and break through the plastic liner of ROCKWOOL’s wastewater ponds, the event “could result in catastrophic release to groundwater” of contaminants hazardous to human health.
More than 40 percent of residents in Jefferson County rely on private wells, and JCF thinks ROCKWOOL’s permits failed to adequately address karst geology and sinkholes.
ROCKWOOL did not answer questions about the sinkholes but previously said it repaired them when they appeared.
JCF disagrees. “If you put this (air quality or stormwater) permit in Maryland, it wouldn’t have happened,” April says. “If you put it in Virginia, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s basically to do with the political situation in West Virginia.”
In a handout at an August 2018 open house, ROCKWOOL explained it had considered 50 sites for the factory in 10 states and chose Jefferson County as having the “desired mix of low costs and preferred operating conditions” and access to East Coast markets.
“These industries… tend to pick communities that are either rural, poor, or (both) rural and poor.”
JCF president Chrissy Wimer, who attended the meeting, was dismayed. “They openly advertised they chose Jefferson County because of the regulatory environment… We’re a peninsula of low regulation close to major markets where they want to go.”
Wimer, April, Danzey and their neighbors see the battle over ROCKWOOL as a microcosm of how West Virginia prioritizes corporate interests over residents, especially when it comes to the environment. “What’s frustrating is the citizen is treated as the outsider” when dealing with WVDEP, Wimer says. “We’re treated as the cog in the wheel. You get a very clear feeling that you’re an annoyance and a frustration.”
Republican Gov. Jim Justice—a coal mining billionaire—stated after his 2016 election campaign that reinvesting in natural gas and coal resources in West Virginia was a top priority. In his first state address in 2017, he promised West Virginia industries would stop hearing “no” from WVDEP—an agency already notorious as an industry yesman.
In 2018, Justice issued an executive order expediting WVDEP’s permitting process, to make industrializing the state (with increased fossil fuel use) easier. In December 2020, he joined EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler in announcing the EPA would not tighten rules on air emissions of fine particulate matter, like the soot from burning coal, even after a nationwide study linked air pollution with COVID-19 deaths. West Virginia Economic Development Authority, a state agency, offered ROCKWOOL $150 million in bonds.
“West Virginia is known for its limited environmental protections,” says Laura Anderko, co-director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at Georgetown University (a signatory on a complaint against ROCKWOOL). “That’s why these industries place themselves in places like Mississippi and West Virginia. They tend to pick communities that are either rural, poor, or (both) rural and poor.
“ROCKWOOL is a community story that is echoed thousands of times across our country. Protections that were put into place after years and years of science and research are ignored or modified in a way to benefit industry and hurt people’s health.”
Turning to Denmark
Denmark has positioned itself as a global green leader, legislating to go carbon-neutral by 2050. And to help reach this goal, in its 2019 sustainability report, ROCKWOOL promised to cut its carbon emissions per unit produced in its two Danish factories by 70 percent.
Which is why the West Virginians turned to Denmark to pressure ROCKWOOL to live up to its own standards—just, overseas. In 2019, the nonprofit West Virginians for Sustainable Development filed a complaint about ROCKWOOL’s international business practices with the Danish Mediation and Complaints-Handling Institution for Responsible Business Conduct (NCP Denmark).
“A lot of foreign companies understand the complexities of our laws and the ability of industry to get away with environmental violations that they would not get away with in other countries,” Anderko says. “That’s what we’re seeing here. This is all very well-planned and well-orchestrated by ROCKWOOL.”
The mediation group attempts to resolve Danish violations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) guidelines. The OECD, made up of the world’s richest countries, issues policies and standards for economic growth, including environmental standards. Any findings or decisions resulting from the complaint would not have enforceable legal standing, but the activists were hoping they could highlight the disconnect between ROCKWOOL’s statements on climate and its actual global practices.
Former weatherman Tim Ross, 65, describes filing the complaint as “trying every avenue.”
“They were hoping there would be something that would come out that could cause ROCKWOOL to change, either to shut down or just be more congenial and willing to listen,” Ross says.
In 2018, his daughter, Maura, then a student at Butler University, pushed her dad to look into ROCKWOOL after learning about “sacrifice zones,” the often low-income communities that serve as a “fence” between industry and other neighborhoods. Maura’s argument resonated with Ross, who grew up in coalfields.
After not being heard by state officials, Ross became one of the first residents to turn directly to Denmark for help. In January 2019, Ross bought $323.95 of ROCKWOOL stock. He then filed a shareholder resolution, asking ROCKWOOL to have a plan—beyond what the law requires—to minimize harm to children and the environment. Ross traveled to Denmark in early 2019 for the annual shareholder meeting with three flags pinned to his lapel—West Virginia, the United States, and Denmark.
Ross says he was impressed at the meeting; he simply raised his hand and was allowed to read his resolution. The resolution did not pass, but the West Virginian delegation did meet members of parliament and other groups—who advised the community to file their complaint through the OECD.
“All our community wants is not to be ruined.”
When West Virginians for Sustainable Development filed its complaint, it noted the “many months of pursuing other legal and political mechanisms to stop or otherwise drastically improve the project. At this time, we have exhausted all other meaningful avenues available to us in the United States.”
In early 2020, ROCKWOOL and members of West Virginians for Sustainable Development met over three virtual meetings, organized by NCP Denmark. The West Virginians tried to push for greener options in the facility, but ROCKWOOL eventually backed out.
Danish environmentalists, at least, understood the concerns. “Pollution from a factory would never end up in front of elementary schools (in Denmark),” says Signe Sand, a Copenhagen-based architect and member of the Green Student Movement. “If what people from West Virginia are saying is right, people would go mad.”
A petition by residents of the Soissons region of France, the proposed site for another ROCKWOOL factory, states Denmark doesn’t want more ROCKWOOL factories at home because ROCKWOOL is “recognized around the world as a highly polluting company.”
In lieu of continued mediation, NCP Denmark will now issue a (non-binding) ruling on whether ROCKWOOL is violating OECD environmental standards in West Virginia. The Jefferson County residents who filed the complaint expect to hear back by March 31.
Elin Wrzoncki, director of human rights and business at the Danish Institute for Human Rights, met Danzey during her walk in November 2019. Wrzoncki says the complaint, and ROCKWOOL’s subsequent refusal to mediate, could damage ROCKWOOL’s reputation in Denmark.
“There’s a lot of investors taking more social, environmental, and governance criteria into consideration in investing situations,” Wrzoncki says. “It’s not only a court of law or a fine that can actually change behaviors, but it all depends on (NCP Denmark).”
ROCKWOOL did not respond to questions regarding the complaint nor say why it declined mediation.
Danzey is disappointed ROCKWOOL hasn’t tried harder to find common ground with residents, as it has through a series of ongoing community meetings in France. “If ROCKWOOL had said, ‘Let’s put together a group of community members and hear their concerns,’ it would have been better for them,” according to Danzey. “All our community wants is not to be ruined.” (ROCKWOOL maintains on its website it has been “transparent and open,” placing ads about the project in local newspapers, holding events, and sending mail to Jefferson County residents.)
Threats to community health are mirrored in the climate threat of the fossil-fuel-burning furnace. Edward Collins, director of climate lobbying at InfluenceMap, a London-based climate think tank, tells VICE World News and In These Times that greenhouse gas-emitting companies (and their supply chains) are losing the battle against stronger environmental regulations in Europe—thanks to EU climate goals—but climate policy under the Trump administration “clearly” went in the “opposite direction.”
“In the U.S., intense corporate lobbying has resulted in political inaction on climate,” Collins says. “This would be attractive for any company looking to pursue a business-as-usual strategy.”
The long game
West Virginia’s reelection of Gov. Justice in November 2020 means the state won’t get tough on industry anytime soon.
While the OECD process continues, activists recognize the nonbinding outcome may not change ROCKWOOL’s plans.
President Joe Biden’s administration offers a new avenue for hope—if the EPA takes Biden’s promise to heart to use the “full capacity and power of the federal government” on behalf of the climate. First, it would have to hold WVDEP accountable.
Wimer plans to reconnect with the EPA as soon as Biden is more firmly established. “We hope there’s a calmer, more straightforward approach,” she says. “Because we really need the EPA to step in here and tell the DEP that they have to follow the rules and make ROCKWOOL get a new (air quality) permit.”
Jefferson County’s hope is echoed nationwide. Biden was elected on a $2 trillion plan to address clean energy and environmental justice and rejoined the Paris climate agreement on his first day in office.
An EPA spokesperson tells VICE World News and In These Times that the EPA is “reviewing all of the agency’s actions issued under the previous administration to ensure that they protect public health and the environment.”
Tabb says she is “cautiously optimistic the EPA will become a forceful institution.”
Meanwhile, residents are gathering their own data about what harm the ROCKWOOL factory may cause. One of Danzey’s neighbors, for example, is a doctor collecting hair samples from children within 6 miles of ROCKWOOL now, so they can be compared with hair samples from three years on, with funding from West Virginia University.
JCF has started a private drinking water well testing program, so residential well owners can have baseline water data from before ROCKWOOL operations begin.
That data matters to residents like Danzey, who has a 9-year-old son. She wants to make sure he doesn’t grow up in a sacrifice zone the way she did.
“West Virginians have had enough of corporations walking in and doing whatever they want,” Danzey says. “I’m so tired of hearing that West Virginia’s population is shrinking unless you’re doing something to make it more livable, the idea (being) that you don’t owe us an explanation for what we do with our air and water or even an ear to listen.
“We need something different in West Virginia.”
Austyn Gaffney is a freelance reporter in Kentucky covering agriculture, energy, and climate change. Follow her on Twitter.
This reporting was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting. Juan Caicedo provided fact-checking.