Green builders and bloggers often hail mineral-wool insulation as an environmentally attractive alternative to plastic foams. But construction of a $150 million factory in West Virginia to meet growing U.S. demand for the insulation has opened deep community rifts and raised fears of air and water pollution.
Rockwool, a Danish company that makes a variety of mineral wool products for both commercial and residential applications, is building a manufacturing plant that will bring 150 permanent jobs to Ranson, West Virginia. Site work is well underway, and Rockwool hopes to open the plant by the fall of 2020.
But opponents are still hoping they can convince the company to pull up stakes and move the plant somewhere else. They worry that a factory that goes through 84 tons of coal and 125,000 gallons of water a day poses a threat to local air and water quality, and ultimately will dissuade tourists from coming to the area, The Washington Post reports.
The relatively affluent area around Ranson—just 70 miles from the Beltway circling Washington, D.C.—doesn’t need the jobs, critics complain. And the area will be degraded by the tons of small particulates that will be released into the air annually.
Those in favor of the plant dismiss their concerns, and state and federal regulators say the plant will not adversely affect the environment or the health of nearby residents.
The dispute has become so sharp that residents have stopped showing up at a local farmers’ market for fear of getting into an argument over the plant, The Post said. The local parent-teacher organization wasn’t sure it wanted to invest in playground equipment at the school across the street from the factory site because they didn’t want their children playing outside.
Why green builders like it
Spray polyurethane foam and sheets of rigid foam have become important allies to designers and builders who are striving for higher energy efficiency. Because foams are so effective, they have found their way into many high-performance houses.
But they’re made with chemicals derived from petroleum, and some of them have ingredients with a high global warming potential. Some green builders won’t use foam insulation for those and other reasons. So when mineral wool began moving from the commercial into the residential construction world a few years ago, some in the business cheered.
Mineral-wool insulation is made by melting rock and spinning the molten material to create a dense fibrous material that in addition to insulating effectively is also fire resistant and unaffected by water. It can be used below grade to insulate foundation walls, and above grade as continuous exterior insulation on walls.
Alex Wilson, the founder of BuildingGreen, wrote in 2013 that he was “thrilled ” to learn that Roxul (which has since been renamed to Rockwool) would be making its ComfortBoard insulation available to residential builders. The insulation has a recycled content of 75% and could be ordered with recycled content of as much as 93%.
Wilson also liked the relatively high R-vale of 4 per in., and its high vapor permeability, which allows wall assemblies to dry to the exterior when the insulation is applied on the outside of a house.
Rockwool promises to be a good neighbor
The company operates 45 plants in 20 countries and said in a statement announcing the Ranson plant that it would help meet rising demand for the insulation in the U.S. market.
The 469,000-sq.-ft. plant will be its second in the U.S. The company said it will manufacture the full lineup of Rockwool insulation products. Other North American facilities are located in Marshall County, Mississippi; Milton, Ontario; and Grand Forks, British Columbia.
Rockwool has worked to strengthen its environmental credentials, announcing two years ago that it would stop using binders that contained formaldehyde in some of its products. The Post said the company was “befuddled” by the controversy.
A website Rockwool created about the project says Ranson was one of 50 areas in 10 states that were considered for the manufacturing plant.
The company says technicians at the plant—most of whom will be local—will earn between $35,000 and $55,000, while managers will earn an average of $85,000. In all, Rockwool says it will spend $218 million there over the first 10 years of operation—$150 million on the plant itself, $64 million in wages, and $4 million in taxes.
Rockwool also emphasizes the environmental benefits of mineral-wool insulation, claiming that over its lifetime the building insulation it sold in 2017 will save 85 times the energy consumed and 80 times the carbon emitted in its production.
“We take pride in the fact that our stone wool products are among the most sustainable forms of insulation on the planet,” the website says.
Locals are annoyed with the approval process
Part of the dispute may have nothing to do with how mineral-wool insulation is manufactured, but rather the way in which the new factory was approved by local authorities. The factory site, a former commercial orchard, was to have become a train station with retail sites and residential units nearby, but after a secretive process the city announced two years ago that a factory would be located there instead.
There were a number of public hearings, but there was little apparent interest in the project until last year. Then, after a ground-breaking ceremony in June 2018, critics came out of the woodwork. One of them, a group called Resist Rockwool, claims that despite winning a permit from state environmental authorities, the new plant would “spew thousands of tons of toxic and hazardous pollutants into the air we breathe.”
The group also cried foul over incentives offered by local officials to the company. The plant with a pair of 213-ft.-tall smokestacks is being built across the street from a school.
“We were shocked and disheartened to learn that our public officials had secretly committed over $37 million of our tax money for incentives to a foreign corporation that would impose a polluting factory and significantly deteriorate our land, air, and water,” the group says at its website.
The criticism isn’t universal. Don Specht, a 69-year-old retired math teacher who grew up in the area, told The Post:
“The whole thing is permitted. And this county could benefit from economic balance. There’s a lot of anti-growth sentiment here, and to me it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Rockwool replies to critics
Michael Zarin, Rockwool’s vice president for group communications, said the company was invited to build the facility by the Jefferson County Development Authority on land that had been rezoned as an industrial area. The new factory won approval based on federal emission regulations, and that actual emissions are expected to be “well below” the limits considered safe, even for children, the elderly, and asthmatics.
“Rockwool understands that some local residents have concerns about the site,” Zarin said in an email. “To provide additional reassurance to address these concerns the company is fully funding local air monitoring stations that will begin monitoring air quality from one year before start of operations.
“Taking this step is not a standard procedure,” Zarin continued, “but we do so voluntarily to provide the community with independent, publicly available data tracking and benchmarking emissions—notwithstanding 80+ years of experience operating in communities with schools, homes, hospitals, and natural areas nearby.”
Zarin also made these points:
- The primary fuel for the melting furnace will be milled coal, up to 84 tons per day. Although Rockwool is working to decarbonize its production, electric melting doesn’t make sense environmentally unless the electricity can be sourced from low-carbon sources.
- The plant is permitted to emit up to 113 tons of particulates (PM 2.5) annually but even at full capacity actual emissions will be “significantly below” that level.
- The plant is designed to prevent contamination of soil and groundwater, with process water contained in a closed loop.
- Smokestack heights are determined mostly by state environmental and aviation regulations, but taller stacks are better for the environment.
-Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.