CHARLES TOWN – Is the Jefferson County school system planning to take Rockwool to court over the Payment In Lieu of Taxes agreement that school board members signed in 2017?
School board members Kathy Skinner, Gary Kable and Arthena Roper say the board hasn’t yet authorized such a step.
That’s despite the letter sent to Rockwool last week by Bondy Shay Gibson, Jefferson County school superintendent. In it, she warned that the Denmark-based company’s shift in approach on an independent health risk assessment Rockwool volunteered to pay for is not acceptable.
School system spokesman Hans Fogle in an email on Tuesday said that Gibson’s Feb. 7 letter – signed by Gibson and sent on a letterhead featuring all the board members’ names – was not “an action” by her or the school board.
In her letter, Gibson stated the school board would continue to oversee the risk assessment to ensure unbiased findings and in the final graph, she added that it would seek to oppose implementation of the PILOT – to “pursue any and all legal, ethical courses of action to oppose the enactment of the Payment In Lieu of Taxes Agreement.”
In an email sent to Rockwool opponents Tuesday morning, Shepherdstown resident Lynn Yellott cites the school system in an email headed, “The Fight Against Rockwool: We’re Making Progress.”
“The dynamics of the Rockwool fight are changing rapidly,” she writes. “Our local governments have joined us to stop Rockwool – Charles Town mayor and City Council, Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown town councils; our state legislative delegation is fighting for us in Charleston, and the Jefferson County Board of Education have expressed opposition to Rockwool.”
Yellott goes on to invite Rockwool opponents to travel by bus – for free – to D.C. Thursday morning “to deliver a strong message, including nonviolent direct action, to decision makers. We are looking for people who 1) are willing to risk arrest; and 2) for others who will provide support and … will not be arrested. She also spells out the trip is the work of “a new group, Resist Rockwool.”
Both Kable and Roper told the Spirit they didn’t see the board’s letter before it was sent to Rockwool.
Kable said that while the letter “generally reflects” the school board’s direction to Gibson, he noted the board has not determined whether or how it might challenge the PILOT.
“I don’t know how that’s going to go,” he said. “The PILOT is a contract.”
Roper – who took office this summer after her election in May – pointed out that although she opposes the PILOT, the school board asked Gibson to address only the risk assessment with Rockwool and not the PILOT.
The two other elected school board members – Laurie Ogden and Mark Osbourn – would not discuss the Rockwool letter and the PILOT with the Spirit. “We’ve been working through Dr. Bondy Gibson on that,” Osbourn said.
Skinner said board members will publicly discuss the possible withdrawal from the PILOT and also how they might proceed with the stalled human health risk assessment of the factory’s expected emissions when they meet next on Feb. 25.
A Rockwool offer
Rockwool in a Jan. 28 statement offered to find and hire a firm to conduct the assessment of the factory’s potential harm to children.
“In selecting a consultancy to conduct the [human health risk assessment], we will use the same evaluation criteria as the Board of Education designed for the original process,” Rockwool spokesman Michael Zarin explained in the statement to school officials. “There will be no compromise on quality.”
In a public discussion during a Jan. 28 meeting, the school board directed Gibson to notify Rockwool that the school board would continue to oversee the risk assessment process.
In that discussion, board members did not mention the PILOT. In a prepared statement read earlier in the meeting, Skinner made no mention of the school board moving to stop the PILOT.
Gibson had said the results of the risk assessment would help determine what action, if any, the school board might take, including possibly filing a lawsuit.
The superintendent and Skinner also have pointed out that the school board has repeatedly asked Rockwool to stop construction on its 460,000-square-foot factory in Ranson until the school system independently evaluates the factory’s potential risks to children.
Rockwool officials have said nothing warrants a halt to the construction of its factory, noting that the facility has the necessary permits to move ahead with the project. They say the levels of pollution that will be released from the factory have been found to be safe even for vulnerable populations, such as children with asthma.
Gibson’s mention of the PILOT in last week’s letter to Rockwool prompted Jefferson County Prosperity, an advocacy group that supports the Rockwool factory and other economic development, to issue a news release urging school board members “to avoid wasting taxpayer dollars” fighting the PILOT.
In the release, Jefferson County Prosperity founder Dan Casto, an attorney, also urged school board members to “consider whether they have any personal conflicts that would prohibit them from participating in decision making on the issues.”
The news release doesn’t mention any board members by name but Skinner’s husband – Charles Town lawyer Andrew Skinner – is a former member of the Jefferson County Development Authority, the group that helped negotiate the PILOT.
He served on the JCDA from 2014 until mid-2017, according to his LinkedIn profile. Casto also served on the JCDA until resigning in late 2018.
Gibson’s letter to Rockwool also stoked questions from Jefferson County Prosperity about why the school board is no longer using the Pittsburgh law firm Reed Smith for legal advice on the PILOT.
Kathy Skinner said the school board is now receiving advice on the PILOT from a Martinsburg law firm, but she declined to name the firm, saying she hoped to protect it from public attention that Reed Smith received.
After the Spirit filed a Freedom of Information request for the identity of the firm hired with taxpayer dollars, Fogle said the lawyer handling the work is Jared M. Adams.
He’s a Kanawha County native and a 2008 West Virginia University law school grad who founded Adams Law Firm at 126 E. Burke St. in late 2016. Before that, he worked for Bowles Rice in Martinsburg.
Reed Smith conducted nearly 11 hours of legal work for the school board for a cost of $4,147.70 – or about $384 per hour.
Kable, who represents the Kabletown magisterial district on the board, said of Reed Smith: “They actually did a lot of work for us for that fee.”
Immediately after Gibson’s letter was made public, Zarin said Rockwool hoped to continue to work with school officials on the assessment.
Last fall, the school board formed a special committee to oversee the process of selecting a firm to conduct the risk assessment.
The committee includes Zarin, Skinner, parents Megan Hartlove of Shepherdstown and Carrie McGuinness of Charles Town; Jefferson High student Carden Ruby; Sheryl Hoff, the school system’s attendance director; and Dennis Jenkins, a school maintenance worker.
It’s unclear how much the risk assessment might cost.
Three weeks ago, school officials announced that the sole company that proposed to conduct the risk assessment — Gradient Corp. of Cambridge, Mass.— had withdrawn its offer. Before a price to do the assessment was negotiated, Gradient backed away after school officials asked the company to respond to an article criticizing its research.
Emma Huvos, a Charles Town resident active in the fight against Rockwool, shared on the Citizens Concerned Against Rockwool Facebook page a 2016 Center for Public Integrity article headlined, “Meet the ‘Rented White Coats’ Who Defended Toxic Chemicals.”
The article by David Heath states: “Gradient belongs to a breed of scientific consulting firms that defends the products of its corporate clients beyond credulity, even exhausting studied substances whose dangers are not in doubt, such as asbestos, lead and arsenic. … Gradient’s scientists rarely acknowledge that a chemical poses a serious health risk.”
Gradient was the only firm to submit a “scope of work” proposal outlining how it would conduct the risk assessment.
Gradient officials declined to be interviewed by the Center for Public Integrity for the 2016 piece and also did not respond to requests for comment from the Spirit.
Late last month, the school system put out a news release that said in part: “We are currently re-evaluating our search process to determine the most effective way to move forward. The JCBOE shares the public’s frustration … but it is the only way to ensure that the company selected to complete the assessment has met all the rigorous standards that have been set forward.”
In Rockwool’s statement offering to undertake the independent risk assessment, Zarin underscored the need for the assessment to be completed without delay.
“We can’t unbuild the factory, so if we are to have a chance to take any mitigating steps, we would naturally want to do that sooner rather than later,” Zarin wrote. “There is not necessarily a fixed point on the calendar beyond which it would be too late to act on any unexpected findings, but the further we get into the construction process, the more difficult it becomes for us to take any action that, contrary to expectations, might be indicated.”
The school board on Sept. 25, 2017 signed onto the PILOT to allow Rockwool to avoid millions of dollars in local real estate and personal property taxes through 2029. Following a June 26, 2018, groundbreaking ceremony, citizens began protesting the factory’s construction near North Jefferson Elementary School.
Now the school board, the Jefferson County Commission and other signatories to the PILOT are defendants in a lawsuit filed by Jefferson County Vision, the nonprofit formed by county residents opposed to the Rockwool factory. The suit contends the PILOT, a business recruitment tool used by West Virginia economic development officials, violates state Constitution requiring equal taxation.
“We’re right in the middle, and we’re trying to keep in the middle,” Kable said of the factory issue. “Our first mission is to educate children. Our first obligation is to take care of those 9,000 children every day, and that’s a challenge.”