CHARLES TOWN – After five months of searching for a firm to conduct a children’s health risk assessment of the emissions expected from Rockwool’s insulation factory, the Jefferson County school board is starting from scratch.

At Monday night’s school board meting, board president Kathy Skinner said Gradient Corp. has backed out after school officials pressed about an article criticizing its research as biased toward polluters.

A 2016 article in the Center for Public Integrity headlined, “Meet the ‘Rented White Coats’ Who Defended Toxic Chemicals,” singles out the Cambridge, Mass., consulting firm. 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.”

Emma Huvos of Shepherdstown shared the article on the Citizens Concerned Against Rockwool Facebook page earlier this month along with a video of her research on the company.

Gradient was the only firm to submit a “scope of work” proposal outlining how it would conduct the school system’s health assessment on the $150 million factory under construction near North Jefferson Elementary.

Rockwool is set to open next year under a state Department of Environmental Protection permit that will allow the release of benzene, formaldehyde and other chemicals classified as “known, probable or possible” cancer-causing substances, according to DEP documents.  

But Rockwool officials point out the factory will generate less pollution than its permit allows and DEP officials say the levels are considered safe even for people with fragile health as well as for animals and the overall environment.

Rockwool and the DEP report that the factory’s permit considers worse-case maximum scenarios that won’t occur under the factory’s actual operating conditions.

Gradient officials declined to be interviewed by the Center for Public Integrity and did not respond to requests for comment from the Spirit.

A news release from the school system says 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.”

Rockwool is paying for the health risk assessment.

“Community members will recall that when we committed to conducting the [human health risk assessment] in August, we said that in the unlikely event that the study indicated unexpected risks, we would work to mitigate those as part of the construction process,” Rockwool spokesman Michael Zarin wrote in a news release Monday. “The further into that process we get, however, the more difficult and less likely it is that we would be able to do so.”

“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,” he wrote.

Along with Zarin, the school board’s health assessment selection committee includes 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.

Gibson has said the assessment will guide actions the school board might take, including possibly going to court.

The assessment findings will be made public and discussed with the school board at a public meeting, she said.

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