CHARLES TOWN – With scores of county residents arguing against the insulation manufacturing plant under construction in Ranson as well as a related Mountaineer Co. gas line, many elected officials have responded by saying they’re going to fight along with them.

At Monday’s Charles Town City Council meeting, Mayor Scott Rogers said he wasn’t initially told the complete truth about how the Mountaineer pipeline would serve the Rockwool plant, which plans to heat rock material in furnaces to make it insulation. He said he was first told the pipe was for homes and that plant didn’t need gas service.

“It turns out Rockwool does need it, because if they don’t get the natural gas pipeline they will be burning coal,” he said.

Rogers said county residents should look to influence what future commercial and industrial development takes place in Jefferson County. He supports giving county residents a final in how much industrialization could occur in the future. “Let the people vote on it,” he said.

“People need to understand that what they’re doing there [at the plant industrial site], and what this sewer’s about,” he added. “It’s not about one Rockwool. It’s about two Rockwools. It’s about another 1,000 acres of developable land, and they want to put  heavy industry there.”

At last week’s Jefferson County Commission public hearing on Rockwool, JCC President Josh Compton said he felt mislead by the process, including not receiving information or advice on Rockwool’s industrial process and its potential harm.

“The reason I agreed to this was I essentially thought it was going to bring jobs,” he said. “Did I think it was to this extent of pollution and whatnot? Absolutely not.”

Compton reminded those at the JCC meeting that he moved to the county from Maryland, then went on to say how frustrating he is the way West Virginia government functions. “This state is full of more cronyism than I have ever seen in my entire life,” he said, “and I have no problems saying that. A lot of it comes from Charleston, it really does.”  

Toward the conclusion of the evening’s marathon JCC hearing, he added, “This is starting to smell like a skunk more and more this minute. … I’m kind of ticked off about it, to tell you the truth.”  

Commissioner Caleb Wayne Hudson, originally from southwestern West Virginia and a Shepherd University graduate, apologized to the residents for the process that allowed Rockwool to buy orchard land and begin constructing its plant.

He said he would do what he can to help the residents permanently stop the plant’s construction. He said sympathized with a story a lady told about industrial pollution and hazardous waste accidents that have the environment in Kanawha County and the Kanawha Valley.

“I fell in love with Jefferson County and I don’t want it to be Charleston, and I’m sorry,” he said to loud applause. “I’m not sure what this body can do, but I’ll be there with you at the [Ranson City Council] meeting.”

On Monday, Charles Town City Council member Mike Brittingham listened to residents’ concerns and personal stories and said he’d changed his mind over whether he could or should back the cause residents from throughout the county. He made his impassioned declaration as the City Council was considering whether to vote to take preliminary steps to approve utility bonds that would

“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,” he said.  “This [manufacturing plant] is not in Charles Town. We might not have the right to stop it.”

Nevertheless, Brittingham, a former volunteer firefighter and Maryland state trooper, said that even though the plant was not in Charles Town, city officials should still do whatever they can to stop the plant from opening.

He likened such action as much of a moral as a policy imperative. “These people have been wronged by their representatives that are supposed to be helping them – by the Ranson City Council, by their Jefferson County Commission,” he said.

“I watch videos all the time,” he said. “We’ve all seen them on the news where there’s a fight when somebody’s being assaulted and we ask ourselves why aren’t the four guys standing on the side who could be intervening stopping and somebody, why aren’t they intervening? Well, damn it, I’ll jump in.”

Some of her grandchildren attend T.A. Lowery Elementary School near the Rockwool site, Jefferson County Commissioner Jane Tabb explained at Thursday evening’s JCC meeting. She became visibly emotional as she described how much she has learned from residents and that she wants to learn more about the plant, including how the plant’s air emissions will be monitored.

She also she wanted to explore the legal avenues available to the JCC”to see what can be done” to stop the plant from opening. She said she supported the gas line and wanted to learn more about what extra precautions Mountaineer Gas will take because of the county’s geography.   

Tabb said she hoped officials with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in Charleston would come before the commission, possibly for another evening special session, to answer questions about the safety of the plant and its approved self-reporting emissions monitoring.

“There’s a trust factor here that’s lacking with that [plant air emissions] permit,” she said, “and we need to know how to feel comfortable with whatever may happen in the future that we all will have clean air to breathe.”  

Commissioner Peter Onoszko said he appreciated the information and perspectives from residents but wanted to weigh and compare information on both sides of the issue, including information and expertise from state environmental officials as well as Rockwool representatives.

He admitted that allowing the use of air emissions monitoring equipment seven miles from the Rockwool plant as part of the enforcement of restrictions in the company’s emissions permit, as residents maintained would happen, “sounded a little screwy to me.” However, he added that he wanted to be sure that shutting down the Rockwool plant, if that would become his position wouldn’t stop the county’s efforts to recruit other companies in the future from setting up operations in the county.

“There’s two sides to every story,” Onoszko said. “It’s an important enough decision that if it were done in passion and as sort of a snap type of thing or whatever, it could well close the door to any other kind of development. I want want to think the entire thing through.”

On Monday, Charles Town council member Ann Paonessa praised residents for their effective protests, and encouraged them to continue. “I would say no matter what happens from here take the energy that you feel tonight and put it in the things that you’re talking about,” she said. “Your development authority for a decade or more has exactly been pursuing what they’re bringing to you. That has been their focus. And as a community, everybody is right.

“We have to get back with that dialogue about what you do want them to pursue. They haven’t had a win before, and this [Rockwool plant] is a win in what the county commission and the county development authority has been pursuing for, again, more than a decade. It’s not personally a shock to me.”

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