CHARLES TOWN – After three whirlwind days of meetings, presentations and press interviews in Denmark, Tim Ross found himself wondering how much good the 4,000-mile trip from Jefferson County might have done.
Then at the Copenhagen airport, a security officer screening their bodies and luggage asked where Ross and his wife Mary Ellen were from.
When they answered “West Virginia,” the worker brought up the Rockwool plant. “He goes, ‘Yeah, that’s too close to a school,’” Ross recalled. “So the security guy … already knew the story and already knew the main thing — that blew us away.”
Ross and others from Jefferson County spent April 1 to 4 talking about Rockwool, its controversial Ranson factory under construction and the grassroots community opposition to the project that began just after the plant’s June 26 groundbreaking ceremony.
A retired meteorologist and a lifelong West Virginian, Ross, 63, helped organize the trip to attend a Rockwool shareholders meeting in Copenhagen.
He and his wife purchased a single share of the company’s stock – for $314, including transaction fees – to attend the corporate gathering and present their concerns.
“We raised awareness within the Danish public which I think is putting some pressure on the company,” said Rod Snyder, a lifelong Jefferson County resident who joined the group and attended the shareholders meeting.
“My biggest surprise was how much interest there was in the story from a media perspective,” he said. “It was pretty much wall-to-wall coverage the entire time.”
A Shenandoah Junction resident, Snyder, 38, a Democrat who narrowly lost a House of Delegates race in 2016, works at a nonprofit in Washington that supports sustainable agriculture.
The trip was arranged to do “outreach and education” in Denmark about Rockwool and its factory in Ranson, Ross and Snyder agreed.
Ross and Snyder said their central message – county residents’ concerns about the pollution the facility would legally be allowed to emit into the air and its proximity to North Jefferson Elementary and other current and future school sites – needed to be communicated directly to Rockwool’s corporate executives and shareholders.
“We truly felt and believed, and I really believe it now, that the leadership of Rockwool doesn’t have a full picture,” Ross said.
“Their perception of Rockwool is very different from what we have been experiencing here in Jefferson County,” Snyder said.
Ross and Snyder submitted a formal resolution to Rockwool’s shareholders that would have committed the company from building its factories no closer than 600 meters from a school.
The measure failed. The company already has a policy of trying to avoid building its factories no closer than 500 meters from a school, Ross explained.
But the presentation gave Ross and Snyder the opportunity to tell their side of the West Virginia story to about 200 of the company’s shareholders.
Ross said he was surprised how open Rockwool’s shareholder meeting was for participants to present ideas, especially alternative and contrary ideas. “You go up and you ask your question and then you sit down and then either the director or the CEO comes and answers the question,” he said. “So it’s much more open than in America.”
Other Jefferson County residents who made the trip include Chanda Drew, Jeffrey Gustafson, Catherine Jozwik and Kai Newkirk, an activist with Jefferson roots with the recently formed anti-Rockwool activist group called Resist Rockwool.
Resist Rockwool has organized sit-ins at U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin’s Washington office and at the Danish Embassy. Both ended with arrests.
Ross and Snyder said the people who went to Copenhagen last week went as private citizens not representing Resist Rockwool or Jefferson County Vision, a nonprofit formed by county residents.
Each paid their own expenses for the trip, Ross and Snyder said.
Ross said his understanding and experience is that Danish government and society is much more open to dialogue, cooperation and consolation where possible. Government officials take the time to listen to constituents and others, he said. Much more so than in American, he added.
Denmark even has a government ministry devoted to resolution and mitigation, he said. “If you have a problem you resolve it through dialogue,” Ross explained. “That’s how they work.”
After the shareholders meeting, Ross, Snyder and two others from Jefferson County, ducked into an impromptu discussion with Rockwool’s CEO Jens Birgersson and Bjørn Andersen, a senior vice president who oversees Rockwool’s technology and manufacturing processes and someone who has spent considerable time in Jefferson County since the uproar began.
The discussion, also attended by Rockwool public relations executives, lasted for about two hours, Ross and Snyder said.
“They realize that we aren’t monsters,” Ross said. “I think they were expecting us to cause trouble and that’s why we went over there.”
When Rockwool held a series of open houses at Sam Michaels Park in Shenandoah Junction in August, Rockwool protesters organized a boycott rather than meet with company officials.
Snyder acknowledged that the discussion in Denmark didn’t dissuade Birgersson from building the Ranson factory. “It was a civil conversation and perhaps we understand each other a little better, but I don’t see any agreement,” he said.
Ross, who spent his youth in towns all across West Virginia, said he is aware of how coal and other extracting industries have exploited the state. He said sees it today in the jobs his relatives have in West Virginia. He was able to share some of the perspectives with Rockwool’s executives, he said.
“This isn’t just about Rockwool,” Ross said. “It is about the manipulation of our elected and appointed officials to exploit this valley.”
Another message Ross and Snyder said they communicated to Rockwool officials is that whatever happens with the factory in Jefferson County will be a public relations story following the company if and wherever it might open additional factories in the United States.
In addition to attending the shareholders meeting, the Jefferson Countians met with legislators and representatives with nonprofit environmental groups.
Newspapers, radio programs and television stations covered the group’s trip and the reason for it and purpose behind it, much more than the national media has covered the Rockwool story in Jefferson, Snyder and Ross said.
Danish society is permeated with a strong environmental conscientious, Ross said. “They’re very proud that they have so much energy from renewable resources,” he said.
During the trip, Jozwik talked about Rockwool’s activities in Jefferson County in the street to casual passersby, explaining that the county’s kart geology that is prone to sinkholes that can allow pollution to more easily contaminate groundwater resources, Ross said.
Snyder said he learned more about electric furnaces that Rockwool is testing in some of its factories, including in Denmark and Norway.
He suggested to Rockwool executives that such technology might be worthwhile exploring to reduce pollution near North Jefferson Elementary. But, he said, the company’s executives did not readily embrace the idea, considering that the source of electricity coal fired in West Virginia.
Ross said Rockwool opponents here are not deterred that the factory has gained the OK for the water, gas and sewer utility infrastructure it needs to operate.
“Perhaps it’s viewed as a long shot because it’s outside of the governance process here in West Virginia,” Snyder said of the group trip to Denmark, “but that process is largely failed us. So I think we have to do whatever we can to find other avenues to fight this.”
Snyder said he has been contacting a number of environmental groups in Denmark since late last year, and meeting those people directly was valuable.
“I think we established relationships that will be ongoing and continuing,” Ross said.