Something Rotten in Denmark

In West Virginia, we’ve learned the hard way that Shakespeare was right: There is, indeed, something very rotten in Denmark.

At Climate Week events in New York City last month, Denmark’s Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen appeared alongside the CEO of the Danish manufacturing company Rockwool to tout the country’s commitment to the green economy. However, the glitzy Manhattan gathering is juxtaposed against rising tensions in rural West Virginia where my neighbors and I are battling the very same Danish manufacturer to preserve our air quality and way of life.

In 2017, Rockwool announced that it would build an insulation factory in Jefferson County, West Virginia, a pastoral community of 55,000 residents in the northern Shenandoah Valley with an economy largely based on agriculture, tourism, and a beneficial proximity to the DC-Baltimore region. As details of the Rockwool project emerged, opposition to the factory has boiled over with more than 12,000 residents signing an online petition in a matter of weeks and hundreds of citizens appearing at local hearings to express their disapproval. Hand-painted anti-Rockwool signs have cropped up in farm fields and front yards, dotting the countryside as a silent but powerful symbol of the community’s fierce objections and deepening anxieties.

Rockwool’s proposed half-million square foot factory with 210-foot smokestacks would melt industrial slag and rock at a temperature of nearly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to produce mineral wool insulation fibers. The company’s air quality permit application indicates that the plant would be a significant source of at least nine different categories of air pollution, including several known carcinogens. According to the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory, the facility is projected to be one of the two worst emitters of volatile organic compounds in West Virginia and among the top ten in the state for particulate matter. Most alarmingly, the proposed factory with its round the clock operations is being built across the street from an existing elementary school and within a two-mile radius of three other public schools and two daycare centers where one-third of the county’s children spend their days.

Beyond the significant environmental concerns, the community is also reeling from an approval process that seems designed to limit public input. The Rockwool property had previously been announced as the ideal location for sustainable transit-oriented development with proposed residential and commercial facilities surrounding a newly imagined commuter rail station. However, with the Danish company’s arrival, a handful of municipal officials swiftly rezoned the land for heavy industry with little notice.

Jefferson County residents now feel trapped between a powerful multinational manufacturing company on the one hand and lax regulators on the other. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued Rockwool’s air quality permit this spring without holding a single public hearing. Only a year ago, Governor Jim Justice announced that businesses would stop hearing “no” from the WV DEP, and he appointed a former coal executive to head the agency. But West Virginians still remember our numerous environmental disasters, most recently a massive chemical spill in the Kanawha Valley that poisoned the water supply for 300,000 people. Trust in our regulatory bodies runs thin.

Incidentally, Rockwool’s only other U.S. factory is in Byhalia, Mississippi. It seems anything but coincidental that the company would locate its plants in the two poorest states in the country that also rank near the bottom in stringency of environmental policies. This paints an undesirable picture of a company from one of the greenest countries in the world creating environmental challenges in places that are least prepared to manage them. The timing also coincides with the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken air quality regulations, which could ease compliance burdens for companies like Rockwool while making residents of manufacturing towns more vulnerable.

As community pressure continues to build, Rockwool’s posture and tactics have become more aggressive. At a municipal hearing in early September, Bjorn Andersen, the company’s senior vice president, said Rockwool will never leave, not even if every public official in our county asks, unequivocally, for them to go. The company also refused a request from the president of the county board of education to pause construction on the factory until an independent human health risk assessment could be conducted. Most recently, the county commission received a menacing letter from attorneys representing Rockwool threatening a $100 million lawsuit if local agencies don’t follow through on tax incentives and necessary infrastructure for the plant.

During Climate Week, Danish political and business leaders celebrated their country’s commitment to sustainable development and its progress on greenhouse gas emissions reductions under the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Accord. On the other hand, it’s a sad reality that my home state of West Virginia with its extractive economy, longtime dependence on fossil fuels, and poor economic and health outcomes isn’t invited to these kinds of international gatherings.

But for Denmark, there’s a special kind of hypocrisy in a country that purports to be an environmental leader while its corporations force pollution on communities fighting for something better. The Danes’ moral authority is eroded when they offer a small town in West Virginia the same Faustian bargain our state has seen countless times before — carcinogens and degraded air quality in exchange for a handful of jobs. Meanwhile, Jefferson County’s dreams of sustainable development go up a Danish smokestack.