CHARLES TOWN – What’s ahead with Rockwool?

Jefferson County Commissioners sat down with Delegates Sammi Brown (D-District 65), Paul Espinosa (R-District 66) and John Doyle (D-District 67) to talk about the controversial stonewool insulation manufacturing plant that has been under construction for eight months in Ranson.

“You saw what happened to the county commission for the past year,” Commissioner Josh Compton said to open the discussion. “Our residents are not happy, I guess. And a lot of that notion is the state brought down a lot of this on our backs.”

After breaking ground in June, the Danish company obtained air pollution emissions permits from regulators and met other legal and regulatory obligations ahead of starting production in the summer of 2020. In July, a year after officials first announced that Rockwool had selected Jefferson County for its second U.S. manufacturing plants, hundreds of county residents began to express alarm, insisting that the 460,000-square-foot facility would harm the community.

Citizens flooded JCC meetings to voice their opposition and ask for help to stop the factory.

“What legislation would you propose that would fix the potential mistake that occurred with Rockwool?” Compton asked the delegates. “What bill would you propose that doesn’t come across as anti-business for the state of West Virginia?”

Doyle, who campaigned in opposition to the Rockwool factory, said he is developing four bills to introduce at the 60-day legislative session that begins today. He said he was prepared to describe two of those bills.

One bill, he said, would require industrial permit applicants to place legal notices in both print – “it would have to be in at least 12-point type”– and on digital platforms. “So that people would know what was going on,” he added.

Another bill, he continued, would require any company proposing to invest more than $10 million in a plant or business or that would operate a “physical plant” with a footprint of more than 25,000 square feet would have to hold a public hearing about the venture.

Asked by Compton whether Doyle had legislation to propose that would specifically take action on the Rockwool factory now under construction, Doyle responded: “It all depends how long this plays out. A permit is a permit until it’s over. If we would get a change in the law and there would be a given permit that, say, would extend beyond that limit and they would have to apply again, then I think there is a pretty decent chance that the new application would have to be under whatever new rules there were.

“But that is all I can say. I am not a lawyer.”

Doyle agreed with Compton and Commissioner Ralph Lorenzetti, the former county prosector who unseated incumbent Peter Onoszko in November by vowing to oppose the Rockwool factory in any way possible, that state officials played a strong role in bringing the Rockwool factory to Jefferson County.

“This was sent to you by Charleston,” Doyle said. “This is not something that any of you bear the responsibility for going out and getting.”

Brown said her views on Rockwool centered on “concern for the community and then health and safety standards.” She said her priorities include promoting “transparency,” developing health assessments for local industrial development projects and “reconfiguring” air emissions permits.

Brown, Doyle and Espinosa mentioned directly and indirectly PILOT (Payments In Lieu Of Tax) agreements that the JCC, county school board and others approved last year, giving Rockwool tax breaks as an economic development incentive.

“I do feel like you were put under foot,” Brown said. “I don’t feel like you were given everything you needed to make the most sound decision, and I think you were trying your very best to bring development to Jefferson County. However, the temperature in the community and the divisiveness that has come as part of this project we cannot ignore, regardless of how you feel about development.”

That Rockwool is building near low-income schools is a sore point in the community, Brown said.

A former labor organizer, Brown mentioned the importance of state government promoting safe workplaces. She said she would like to promote development where “West Virginia workers get West Virginia jobs.”

Brown said the Legislature can “empower” the JCC to shape development projects through Home Rule, a pilot program initiated by the Legislature giving local governments more self-governing authority.

“We’ll also make sure you have everything you need to have the community’s input so that you can make a more holistic decision going forward,” she said, “and we will back you up on that. That’s how we’re going to do this – together.”

Compton, after listening to Doyle and Brown, responded with a summary: “Just one quick thing: So in your eyes, not much can be done about Rockwool, you think? Going forward, as you all laid out, going forward things can be done, but as we are right now it’s going to be pretty tough to stop Rockwool, per se.”

Doyle said he is hopeful about the Jan. 2 decision by the Maryland Board of Public Works, a three-member body that includes Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, that denies an easement to allow a gas supply company to lay a pipeline under the Potomac River. That pipeline would supply gas to businesses and homes in the Eastern Panhandle, including potentially the Rockwool factory.

Doyle called the easement rejection “a significant victory for the people fighting Rockwool.”

“That will is one of the things that could result in a long enough delay so that new legislation would in fact be viable,” he said.

Saying the state officials often dictate too many of the terms of local economic development projects, Lorenzetti said the county needs to be wary of companies that accept tax breaks and then move their operations after those tax breaks expire.

“So I’m a little concerned about the current national climate and the Charleston climate for what type industries that we get,” he said. “I’m afraid that the whole system doesn’t have upfront notice to the people of what we’re getting.”

Espinosa said he doesn’t see legislation that would make it harder to attract businesses and jobs to West Virginia likely to gain traction. He also said finding sympathetic lawmakers from other counties to address Rockwool legislation might be challenging.

Most other state lawmakers and counties would welcome such development, said Espinosa, set to begin his third term. But Doyle – first elected to the Legislature in the early 1990s and now returning after a six-year absence – challenged that notion.

Doyle said he has encountered lawmakers from Morgan, Hardy and Hampshire counties and elsewhere who told him they wouldn’t accept the Rockwool factory with open arms.

At one point, Espinosa asked the JCC what legislation they thought could help “unwind” the Rockwool situation. “As I understand it, you essentially have an entity that has, I believe, complied with all state, local and federal laws,” he said.

Compton replied: “As far as we stand on Rockwool, I think all of us can collectively say, it’s going to be quite hard to do something to some entity that has followed the law thus far, so it seems,” he said. “There are court cases, obviously, which are, we don’t know what is going to happen with those.”

Espinosa, tapped as the new majority whip in the Legislature, said some support would exist among state lawmakers to “transition away” from PILOT agreements.

Espinosa and Doyle said they would support some measure of a corporate tax repeal, but Doyle said a limited version focusing on retail inventory taxes might draw the most support. But the lawmakers agreed that replacing the lost tax revenue would be critical, and likely difficult.

Brown said Jefferson County’s reaction to Rockwool has made the county “a conversation starter in the state of West Virginia” over what is appropriate development.

“This could change the face of how we develop, and it could be in a positive way or it could be in a way that it continues to be detrimental,” she offered.

Commission President Patsy Noland, delegates and commissioners talked about how important all tax revenues are to local governments, while Compton said Jefferson needs to keep its local taxes low to compete for residents.

“We have to increase our tax base,” Noland said. “We can’t continue to operate the way we’re operating and expect to be able to provide the services the way that people live here expect, with the way things are structured now.

Noland said Jefferson County needs to create more “living wage” jobs that provide a middle-class lifestyle and develop an economy that allows people to work as well as live in the community, rather than commute long hours to the Washington metro area.

Doyle agreed, adding that the county has an opportunity to draw new office jobs from companies likely to be displaced by Amazon’s new headquarters coming to Crystal City, Va. “We have an opportunity that we haven’t had before,” he said.

Brown asked the JCC what kind of businesses the Legislature should work to help the county attract.

Compton misunderstood the question, saying he doesn’t support raising any taxes.

“We’re not trying to impose more taxes on our own folks,” Brown corrected. “No, no, no. But just in general ideas of what were you thinking, if we had any. If not, we could come back to it.”

“You put us on the spot here,”  Compton responded, half jokingly.

“So sorry – I thought this was a conversation,” Brown replied. “I thought we were talking?”

“Let’s move to MARC train!” Compton interjected, moving ahead to another subject on the JCC agenda. His quip evoked laughter from the room.

Noting the Rockwool discussion had already gone on for an hour, Noland promptly changed the topic to the commuter train’s declining ridership and funding woes.

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