'Say NO to Rockwool'

Second in a series

CHARLES TOWN – When a $150 million insulation manufacturing facility opens in 2020 where peaches and apple trees once grew at Jefferson Orchards, the Rockwool Group’s Bjorn Rici Andersen said there will be no ill health effects for schoolchildren, others living nearby or for horses or honeybees.

Though thousands in Jefferson County are protesting the factory – calling the Denmark-based company “Toxic Rockwool” – Andersen and colleague Marco Boi stressed that Rockwool will meet the same environmental standards that it does in Europe. 

“Our business wouldn’t exist if we are making people ill –  we would go bankrupt,” Andersen said during an extensive interview the two gave last month at the Spirit of Jefferson with Tim Cook and Rob Snyder. (Part of the interview appeared in the Sept. 26 edition of the Spirit and Part II follows. For the full Q. and A., go online to spiritofjefferson.com.)

Tim Cook: Are there any specific things that you would want to take the opportunity now to address as untrue?

Bjorn Rici Andersen: That we will not harm the land. We will not harm the agriculture. We will not harm crops. We will not harm animals. We will not harm human beings. And I think it's important to understand that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection have a very robust permitting system. And the standards are as tight as in Europe or tighter.

For instance, if you look at PM 2.5, we are installing equipment here called a WESP, Wet Electrostatic Precipitator, and that is being used because of the stricter standards in the U.S. So people are claiming we come to the U.S. because of the lenient environmental standards, which is simply not true. We come to the U.S., and specifically this region, to service our customers on the eastern seaboard. We can reach 40 percent of the population of the U.S., something like that because from Washington to New York, that is where the highest density of people live. 

And we, because our business is so logistically heavy, because we transport very light products that are very voluminous, it's important that we have close proximity to give good service.

People should look at what we do. Judge us for what we do, keep us accountable for what we promise, and we will fulfill our promises. If it were any help, I would be happy to fill up a 747 and fly people to Spain. I’d say, “OK, let's go investigate ourselves.” 

... We are close to the old city of Olite which is a very historical city in Navarra. I think we are about five or six kilometers away. No, negative impact. It’s one thing to discuss all the scientific facts, but why not just look at the practical example? How does it work in real life? Croatia is a good example. I posted some pictures yesterday on Facebook. That does not look like a bad place. That looks like a wonderful rural area with a factory in the middle. I'm not saying the factory looks wonderful, but the fields around it do and it has no negative impact. Judge us by what we do and what we say.

Cook: How much do you think xenophobia is playing in — with the foreign company coming in and building a plant — is playing into the reaction that you're receiving?

Andersen: Now, I'm a nonpolitical person, at least when I'm representing Rockwool. I can have my own opinions about policy. I do believe that some of the things that the Trump administration has said about opening coal mines, bringing industry back, perhaps, announcing to be more lax on standards —  I can understand why some of the current administration’s policies would make people worried of an industry like ours. However, when I say all that, everything we comply with was implemented under the former Obama administration.

Cook: What do you think about the argument that came up at the school board meeting which is, “Why should we accept any more amount of risk to the children who are across the street [at North Jefferson Elementary]?” They may not understand the risk that the DEP has assessed, but they understand that whatever chemicals that might be emitted from the plant are more chemicals than would be there if the plant were not there.

Andersen: Let's put that into perspective. First of all, standards are set in order for it to be safe for the sensitive population. That has actually been done by scientists. I think every day we take more risk in what we do. Driving our kids to school, putting them out in the sun, letting them go on a school bus with a driver we don’t know personally. I mean, there's risk all the time and what we do all the time is we mitigate those risks. We ask our children to put on a seatbelt, we don't smoke in front of our children, we don't speak with our telephone in our hands while we drive the car. We put sunscreen on and all that we do to mitigate any risk we have. What is important about the National Ambient Air Quality standards and the Maximum Achievable Control Technology standards, if you are below these limits, which we were below, the risk is insignificant.

Marco Boi: I think one in a million, one of 10 million.

Cook: When you make the decision about locating the air quality monitors, is that going to be made in tandem with the school board?

Andersen: Yes, within the community. We already posted a survey on Facebook about it. My best guess is that one of them will be sent to North Jefferson  — that would make sense. And if we put up one or two more that would be according to where people think they could be. It could be down by the Racetrack as they're very concerned about the respiratory performance of horses, I understand.

Cook: Are these expensive?

Andersen: Approximately $150,000 a piece. That is actually not my concern. My concern is when you put them somewhere in the public domain, people might want to make sure that they operate the right way. It is sensitive expensive equipment, so it is important that it stands somewhere it can be left alone without being vandalized. I think we have to reach a good understanding with the community that is best for all parties that they operate well.

Rob Snyder: Has Rockwool conducted any kind of analyses at how vehicular traffic compares to some of these emissions that you would be releasing from your stack? How does everyday traffic in a particular area in the county, say down U.S. 340 or down W.Va. 9, how does that measure against what your own emissions would be?

Andersen: Only some generic evaluations, but, on the specific element of comparing it to the traffic, we have not done that. And that is what we want to use the air monitors for also, to establish what is actually the background exposure. So with the air monitors up before we start, we can establish what is the background exposure and then we are able to see what is our contribution. And we are confident that that will show that our modeling is conservative.

Cook: In Milton, Ontario, they started an air monitoring annual report, which was supposedly out of direct concerns for the emissions of the Rockwool plant there. Is that true or not?

Andersen: There was an investigation that commenced in 2006 and 2007. I cannot remember when it was or whether or not the Halton region had any issues. I think the report came out in 2011. Where the confusion was is that the cancer incident rates in the Halton region, of which Milton is part of, was no larger than in all of Ontario.

Cook: There wasn't any air quality ongoing annual assessment of the pollutants in the county of Halton.

Andersen: I don't know. But what we do know is that there's no negative health effects of the people living there. And that must be the best record that there is no negative impact on health from our sites. Just go and look at the sites that have been there for many years and see that there's no negative health.

Cook: You can drive up to Milton, get out of the car and take a video like [Jefferson County Development Authority’s chairman Eric] Lewis did and make any conclusion about that other than you're right, a plant was built within a residential community. But you can't know what the health effect is. You said yourself that the plumes that are coming out of these, the pictures of these plumes coming out of the smoke stacks or chimneys, that's not what you see coming out of there.

Andersen: No, but you can make a fair evaluation if they had been allowed to be there for 40 years and people are living in the area and there has been a report issued saying the cancer incidence rate for that local area is no worse than the rest of Ontario. Then that would be one scientific fact. The other one is we have many factories in residential areas and we don't have any issues with any health effects.

Cook: Are they being monitored like the Ranson plant with air quality machines around them?

Andersen: It's unnecessary. They're being monitored and controlled by the local environmental government regulations.

Cook: The regulatory process.

Andersen: And I can assure you that if there were any issues, they would be raised with us by the local occupational doctors, who are responsible for monitoring the health of areas. For me, that must be the most important evidence.

Cook: A lot of old local articles that have come up are a decade old about the odor of the plant, concerns about emissions … that have come up on the Internet and have been raised at these public hearings. Is there a particular context that you could provide?

Andersen: We continue to improve our operations all that time, and if there are concerns being raised, medical concerns, then we really work with the local authorities and neighborhoods to solve it. We have had, in Milton, some odor issues that I think were in 2013. That was related to the old line that we took over in 1988. It was actually older than that. We bought it in 1988. That's been upgraded and it's been solved. By the way, that odor problem cannot exist in Ranson because it's a different process. We don't have the cement so we don't form what is called H2S. 

But hold us accountable for what we say, and then also look at all the new plants that were built around in Spain, in Croatia, we don't see these issues. Our business wouldn’t exist if we are making people ill; we would go bankrupt.

Cook: But there's a dissonance between Mr. Trent Oglivie coming out and saying, “This is not the Rockwool we know. We have no issues that have come up,” and then articles are brought up that show, for instance, the Croatia plant did have some opposition.

Andersen: But that is not the same. He's being misquoted time and time and time again because what he's saying is we don't have any health-related claims.

Cook: Justified, verified health-related concerns?

Andersen: That is not the same as saying we don't have complaints from our neighbors from time to time. Somebody can call in and say, "This truck just overtook me and he did not drive the proper way." And then we say, "Did you get the license plate?”

Cook: Yeah. But some of these articles are talking about concerns about pollution up in Milton. Concerns about the odor, which may have been minor and resolved, but they're not —

Andersen: Odor is not a health issue.

Cook: This probably would be something good to clarify because it's come up, and we haven't adequately allowed you to frame it in terms of what people have actually pulled up off the Internet.

Andersen: Where Mr. Oglivie said, “We don't have any health-related issues,” people convert that into, “We never had any claims.” And I think it would be arrogant to say that when you operate 45 plants around the world you don't have somebody calling in and saying, “Did you know you just you had reversed a truck outside that beeped?” Of course we have complaints. We have complaints like any other operation. But we don't have any health issues. We have yet —

Cook: You've had health concerns, but you've never had any verified health problems?

Andersen: And we have never had anybody who raised a legal claim against us that we have been closing —

Cook: But that's different than somebody raising a health concern and an air pollutions emissions concern. Those concerns may have been unfounded or unproven. But you're saying that no health-related concerns have been raised by your other plants or even the plant in Milton?

Andersen: I’m saying we've not had any ill health effects on our neighbors. I cannot say that nobody has ever had any concern about anything that we have done.

Boi: Some people may be concerned, but the concern by itself is not the fact. It's a concern to take respectfully and act to discuss it, to clarify it, to bring evidence. But, by itself, it's not a fact.

Cook: Is one reason that Rockwool isn't going to budge in stopping and stepping away from opening this plant is because of its branding? Because it's basically been accused of being a dirty company when your whole brand has been about saying we're an environmentally friendly company.

Andersen: No. No. It has nothing to do with that. We have done everything that we're supposed to do, according to the U.S. regulations. We have applied for a very comprehensive, 600-page permit. We have been working with the DEP, with the EPA, with the best environmental consultants, if not in the world, at least in the U.S. We have been working with Jefferson County officials, we have been working with Ranson officials. We have done everything that is required from us in terms of being in compliance with all the strict regulations the U.S. has. Why should we stop or budge when we have done everything to the book and by the regulations?

And at the same time, we have invested a lot of time. A year and a half of our time here. We have customers who expect us to be able to deliver quality products to them. If we leave, if we would budge, as you use that word, then we would lose two, three years of time to meet that demand. Our product is very environmentally friendly, you know, it is an important part of fighting climate change. It's an important part of providing a better future for our children. So why would we, when we have done nothing wrong, run away? To me, the logic doesn't work.

Then you can say, OK, why don't we pause the project until this settles down? And, as we said at the school board meeting, we were very specific that if the independent health risk assessment, in contradiction to our expectations, should show any issues, we will fix those issues. Also, if that means delaying the project, we were very clear on that.

Second thing is, why should we pause the project if there is no real agreement about what is required to start it up again? So, because as soon as we do that the circus will just start again, and to me that makes no sense. I have personally written to [Rockwool opponent] Mr. Chris Kinnann, asking if we should meet and discuss, but he and the concerned citizens have said no, we are only meeting with government officials. That's their choice. We would like to have an open door discussion with them.

Cook: You say this is going to be the most efficient plant because it's going to have the newest technology. This implies that the older plants, like the one in Milton, that their equipment has not had to be upgraded, their permit doesn't require them to match to the new standard. Is that true or is that not true?

Andersen: No, you cannot imply that. What happens is, all our factories are continually upgraded. If you look specifically at the melting technology we are going to use in Ranson, it is something we have developed ourselves over the last 10 years. It is a unique technology, but it is not easy to build in on an existing factory, because the building is different. So once you start, it's like renovating an old house. It is not necessarily so where you can just build it in fast. All our plants around then continue to be upgraded. If you look at what we have invested, 20 years ago, if you said build a full factory, the abatement technology would perhaps be $10 million. It was a small part of the total investment. Today when you build a new factory, the abatement technology is a significant part of the whole investment.

Snyder: You have said $21 million.

Andersen: $21 million being invested in abatement technology alone, and that is excluding the water handling on site.

Cook: What is it that is in the equipment that makes this plant the highest state-of-the-art technology? Is it the furnace technology? Is it emissions abatement? Are there specific things that you could do to describe that?

Andersen: It is the energy efficiency of a new melting technology. It is the fact that with that melting technology, we don't have to process our materials before the melting plant. Before, we had to make something called a cement briquette that we could put into the furnace and melt it. Now we don't have to make the briquettes. And that briquette contains cement. When you melt cement, that releases some sulphur, so by not making the briquettes, you don't release the sulphur from the cement. That is a big, big impact on reducing the environmental footprint. That is more energy efficient. Thirdly, we are investing in this Wet Electrostatic Precipitator. That is an additional system.

Cook: How new is that WESP?

Andersen: The first one we installed was in Mississippi in 2014, and we are exceptionally pleased with the performance, very efficient. This ability of the plant is exceptionally efficient and we are still exploring the full potential of this new tech. We are constantly developing our binder technologies to reduce the use of formaldehyde. We are continuously focused on reducing that. That is also why we add more and more other more natural substances to it.

Cook: Is Rockwool prepared to sue — something happens to the point where this community and this county and this government makes the site untenable for the company, unworkable?

Andersen: I cannot answer that question. That is not my focus at all right now. My focus is to establish a good cooperation with the local communities. To make sure everybody understands what our plans are. But of course, we are also evaluating our legal options. I mean that is an obligation we have to our board, our shareholders and to the county, by the way, but I am not down that road. I am down the road of understanding how can we reach a situation where we can co-exist calmly. I don't think you start a good marriage by saying to your wife, if you don't marry with a heavy pre-nuptial agreement, you'll sue her. I mean I think that's a bad start to the relationship. But, for sure, we did not start the best way, unfortunately.

Cook: Well let me rephrase it. Does Rockwool believe that its property rights would be violated, in other words — that Rockwool has done everything that is needed to do as a property owner and it has the right to develop that site as a plant?

Andersen: Yes. We believe that. We have done everything according to the rules and regulations. We have done everything above the board, we have our air permit, we have our MOUs in regards to utilities, we are following the rules and regulations about getting the building permit in place. And we expect to get that.

Cook: Is there anything that you would like to communicate to the community through this conversation?

Andersen: I think my key message is to the citizens of Jefferson County — we are a very responsible company. We take our footprint and our sustainability very, very seriously. Not only for our products and brand, but also for our production footprint. We have clear targets at all our operations to continually work on minimizing our footprint. We have clearly defined goals for both 2022 and 2030 for this in compliance with the UN sustainability goals. 

We do set our standards over and above what is required by local authorities. We are not a minimal compliance company. We have our own standards and we take any issue seriously. And we want to work with the local community to be a valued neighbor. I think this is really important for us because if you don't achieve that trust, how will we ever be able to recruit the best talent? I mean, how are we going to make sure that we continue to work with the community? And, by the way, I am sure the community will be good watchdogs for us. They will let us know if they think something is wrong.

Cook: Would you be willing to go beyond what's required by regulations and come in and publicly give a presentation before the community about your emissions, about your production there? Things that might even be needed for the community to do, like widen the road or something. To have a regular standing annual update for the community that isn't required but that just would be something to do beyond?

Andersen: Two things about that. One is we already did it. It was called the open house. We put a significant, I mean, significant amount of resources into doing that, I think it cost us in excess of $500,000. Second thing is, we have offered to do air monitoring, which is way above what we are supposed to do by regulation. Normally, where we have an operation, we actually have a citizen group we work with. 

So for instance, when I was in Wales, I had the local citizen group that came and visited us twice a year and we went through any issues they might have. And then we went through our emission charts, how they have developed, how was our water usage. We had six complaints for noise because something had been broken, this is what we've done about that. That is not unusual for us to do. We are more than prepared to do that here. Again, we have nothing to hide. I know sometimes is hard for the good citizens to believe, but we don't.

Cook: When you talk about your footprint, you’re talking about your production and your energy capacity footprint, could you explain what that actually means?

Andersen: How much CO2 do we emit from our plant and how can we reduce it. It is how much water do we use per produced unit, so we have a target to continue to bring our water consumption down. How much energy do we use in our own buildings. We want to have world-class safety standards. It is about recycling as much as possible. 

It is by reducing landfills, and have this what they call circular economy. So, we enable our building sites to send the off-cuts back to us so we can pull them out again. If you look at our sustainability report. It details a lot about who we are as a company. And that is not green washing. That is who we are. And do you know why we continue to talk about good sustainability? Because it's good business. It is not like it was 50 years ago when being a swine in the environment was good business. Today that is bad business.

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