RANSON – Prompted by a complaint filed by a Jefferson County-based environmental group, four public officials and others opposing the Rockwool factory, a nongovernmental Danish mediation organization has agreed to open a preliminary investigation into whether Rockwool followed European guidelines for multinational enterprises when the company planned and began constructing its insulation factory in Ranson.
The advisory organization, the Danish Mediation and Complaints-Handling Institution for Responsible Business Conduction (NCP Denmark), plans to conclude its inquiry sometime during the first quarter of next year.
Whatever its findings may be, NCP Denmark can only issue nonbinding recommendations. It has no authority to issue sanctions or penalties.
The organization emphasized in a Sept. 10 statement that its investigation is just beginning and no judgment has been made whether Rockwool might have strayed from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) guidelines. NCP Denmark is an arm of the larger, multinational OECD, which includes the United States as a member.
The Rockwool factory opponents that filed the complaint with NCP Denmark, including a nonprofit called West Virginians for Sustainable Development, have cited concerns about air and water pollution risks and alleged “political improprieties” related to decisions made to build the factory in Jefferson County.
“At this time, we have exhausted all other meaningful avenues available to us in the United States,” the complaint states.
Rockwool officials have long said the future Ranson factory will exceed environmental safety regulations and air-emission permit levels. The company recently announced that the factory will operate completely with natural gas after replacing a coal-fired melting furnace with a new type of gas-fired furnace.
“We are entirely confident that we have planned and are executing the project respecting all local and international requirements,” wrote Michael Zarin, a Rockwool spokesman in an email from Denmark.
NCP Denmark stated its investigation will primarily focus on the OECD guidelines dealing with the environment, human rights and general policies such as “stakeholder engagement.”
The investigation is taking place after Rockwool, while citing what it described as an inability to satisfy factory opponents, declined to participate in NCP Denmark’s offer of mediation.
Zarin stated the current investigation is a preliminary inquiry. He pointed out that the NCP Denmark’s inquiry will be focusing on Rockwool’s business processes and will not be evaluating whether the company has complied with environmental regulations.
“It’s extremely important to highlight that there can be a significant difference between what a complaint alleges and what an NCP actually investigates,” Zarin wrote. “Some allegations can be tossed out in the preliminary investigation phase.
“Our understanding is that NCP will be looking primarily at our due diligence processes. They’re not evaluating compliance with regulatory or legal requirements or assessing the factory’s environmental impacts.”
The Jefferson County political officials who signed onto the complaint include state Delegates John Doyle and Sammi Brown, both Democrats, and Jefferson County commissioners Jane Tabb, a Republican, and Ralph Lorenzetti, a Democrat. Five other regional environmental groups joined the complaint, including the Potomac Valley Audubon Society and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.
Construction on the factory formally began in June 2018 on a 130-acre site off Charles Town Road near Kearneysville. The 460,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to begin operations this spring.
The OECD has 37 member nations, including the United States and Denmark, and its mission is to “shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all,” according to its website.
As an organization fostering the mediation of disputes against companies, NCP Denmark helps ensure that Danish companies and “public authorities” comply with the best practices principles of the OECD guidelines.
Zarin said Rockwool believes the NCP Denmark’s work fulfills a valuable role.
“In addition to evaluating if a company has observed relevant guidelines, their ultimate purpose is to help parties resolve disputes and to encourage and make it easier for companies to observe their guidelines,” he said. “For example, at the end of a process like the one they’re starting now, perhaps more important than making a determination about the guidelines, they could make recommendations for how a company could do better in the future.
“It’s not about penalties or sanctions. It’s about resolving disputes, observing guidelines and of course always trying to do better.”
In their 12-page complaint filed last October, the factory’s opponents are asking Rockwool to “immediately stop” the facility’s construction and to return the factory site back to its original undeveloped condition as a former orchard field.
Alternatively, the opponents want Rockwool to stop construction until 14 “remedies” are implemented. Those demands range from conducting a human health risk and environmental impact studies related to the factory’s planned operations to using a particular electric-arc furnace and air pollution control technologies.
“Our primary goal is to achieve an outcome that is significantly more protective of air, water, and the health and safety of our children and families in Jefferson County and the surrounding region,” Rod Snyder, chair of West Virginians for Sustainable Development explained in a prepared statement.
Doyle said recommendations NCP Denmark might issue could spur West Virginia lawmakers to take action to make the factory safer. Recommendations could also encourage lawmakers to reform the state’s development and environmental safety permitting processes for future factory projects, he said.
“What we’re saying to the Danish institution is that if you find that [Rockwool has] done something wrong perhaps you and we can persuade them to fix it,” Doyle said.
“This fight’s not over,” he said.
Rockwool officials have said the factory is already using the most current technology and systems that are feasible. They turned down using an electric-arc furnace mainly because the system would rely on electricity generated from coal power, defeating the purpose of reducing overall pollution emissions that environmentalists advocate.
Some demands sought by the factory opponents, such as operating air and groundwater monitoring stations and using two-layer liners under stormwater retention ponds, have already been incorporated into the factory’s current construction, Rockwool officials report.
Meanwhile, the factory opponents’ complaint maintains that two “lagoons” on the manufacturing site are “designed to hold hazardous waste material.” Rockwool representatives have stated that those are ponds that only will capture rain and stormwater runoff from the factory site. Instead of flowing into storm drains and off the factory site, the rain and stormwater will be piped into a closed-loop manufacturing process and that no factory waste will be piped into the ponds, company officials have repeatedly said.
Doyle said factory opponents want extra protection from the stormwater ponds because of the site’s underlying porous karst geography, which is prone to sinkholes that could allow stormwater to flow directly into the area’s underground aquifer used for drinking water.
“If, for example, the investigation shows that there is indeed a danger of using these ponds in karst topography, we will have much stronger ammunition with West Virginia [Department of Environmental Protection] to get Rockwool to change that,” Doyle said.
Among the purported political improprieties in the complaint include an allegation that Rockwool failed to follow its own policy of normally locating its factories in existing industrial zones. The former orchard site was rezoned by Ranson officials to accommodate the factory, and the complaint maintains that Rockwool participated in steps to “avoid public scrutiny” during that process.
The factory’s opponents maintain that neither Rockwool nor the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection held a public hearing about the factory’s operations before its construction started. “If Rockwool had engaged in dialogue with the community earlier in the process, the concerns of stakeholders would have been known prior to any significant investment by the company,” the complaint states.
The complaint also alleges that Rockwool negotiated financial incentives related to the factory with former West Virginia Secretary of Commerce Woody Thrasher and afterward hired Thrasher’s firm to prepare engineering site plans for the factory, perform roadwork and coordinate some of the construction and inspections.
“Rockwool has clearly engaged in business deals with the public official who was most responsible for their recruitment to the state,” the complaint states.
While running for governor earlier this year, Thrasher has said the Rockwool factory was well underway before he became secretary of commerce in January 2017, before the factory was publicly announced with fanfare by state and county government officials the following July.
Thrasher also said he separated himself from any oversight or decision making with his family’s construction and construction engineering company after he accepted the top agency position. His company’s extensive business and contract work throughout West Virginia were put in a blind trust while Thrasher served as secretary of commerce, he said.