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Green Building News

New Rockwool Plant Divides a West Virginia Community

Backers welcome new jobs, but other locals fear pollution will spoil air and water

Demonstrators outside a meeting of the Charles Town City Council in September 2018. Photo: Cool Revolution / CC BY-NC-ND / Flickr

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.

28 Comments

  1. John Clark | | #1

    Just a FYI.

    Resist Rockwool is a charity incorporated in WV by David Levine who is the CEO of solar energy products company GEOSTELLAR. Apparently he's not a fan of rockwool due to the energy inputs required to manufacture the product and is petitioning those who set standards for LEED to outlaw its use via energy/pollution input calculations for building materials.

    The pessimist in me wonders if this is just a case of sour grapes because he wanted to have the county re-purpose the land for a large solar farm or roof-top solar for the residences where his company would've been awarded the contract. *shrug*

    1. Russell Miller | | #4

      Plain old buyers remorse, im local to the plant. 100 % remorse!

  2. User avater
    Jon R | | #2

    > 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

    I'd like to think that there is somebody out there who realizes that burning coal is a very bad idea for WORLD air and water quality, going far beyond carbon and PM. Since Rockwool is “befuddled” by this simple fact, I wouldn't trust them to do anything else right.

    1. Russell Miller | | #5

      In operation coal and water useage more than likely will be much less. Rockwool went back to change quantities on the permits to more or less CYA, type of thing.

    2. John Clark | | #6

      As I've said in a prior article about this fiasco in WV, from an energy efficiency perspective coal is a much better source rather than using coal-source electricity when hydro is not available (sounds like hydro is not available).

      Rockwool is sort of a mixed bag in terms of being "green".

      1. User avater
        Jon R | | #7

        My guess is that near existing nuclear or natural gas would be better. Still a mixed bag, but that's always true.

      2. User avater
        Nils Bird | | #9

        They should build in Quebec so we could export our extra hydroelectricity as insulation. There might even be a defunct aluminum plant available.

  3. Russell Miller | | #3

    BORN, RAISED AND STILL LIVE RIGHT NEXT DOOR!
    You are CORRECT very few people showed up to public hearings in the beginning. Despite, huge yellow sigs, ads in local papers and being on commission agenda repeatedly.

    It is not as much of a debate. Those against SPENT MORE AND SPOKE LOUDER, (AFTER CONSTRUCTION BEGAN), than those in support of Rockwool. The Media has blown it out of proportion.

    Yesterday they hired a local politician as their relations guy to heal rifts that have developed.

    The local school board tried to, in a crooked way, backdoor them into leaving the area. Federal judge called it extortion on behalf of the Jefferson County school board.
    Rockwool has been open and honest from beginning to present time.

    I diagree that Ranson is affluent, come down and ill show you a severely blighted community, with some nicer neighborhoods. There are alot of people below poverty and have been for generations in this area. Charles Town and Ranson are against each other so the overlap gives an affluent "vibe" but, i assure you its not!

  4. Peter L | | #8

    Why destroy something from the outside when you can destroy it from the inside? Follow the money trail.

    The green movement is known at times to self-cannibalize. What's green to someone is polluting to someone else. Improving home insulation is polluting to someone else.

    "It's not easy being green." - Kermit the Frog

  5. CollieGuy | | #10

    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.

    This statement troubles me. Over the lifetime of the product, which could be several thousand years, or the lifetime of the structure in which it is used, which may only be fifty, say. Local climate? Carbon intensity of the heating or cooling source?

    1. User avater
      Jon R | | #11

      Or more importantly, how does it compare to alternatives (eg, cellulose)?

      This is yet another case of the lack of charges for environmental damage (all types, not just carbon) causing conflict. Free dumping of coal pollution distorts the market and then the MBAs come up with the wrong answer (eg, "we should use coal").

    2. User avater
      Dana Dorsett | | #13

      Don't take marketing fluff as a legal contract backed up by rigorous analysis. They probably had some junior engineer cook up a semi-realistic paradigm case and presumed building lifecycle to back it up, but it's really irrelevant. Comparing it to lifecycle savings is a common marketing ploy, but it's completely useless non-information.

      Jon R has it right, the true comparison is with the alternative products for the exact end use, not some half-baked analysis of lifecycle "savings" of carbon or HVAC energy relative to the embodied energy or carbon of their product.

      All insulation products have an embodied energy and carbon cost (though by some analysis cellulose is carbon negative, since it is effectively sequestered carbon.) At a given R value the average rock wool solution has somewhat more carbon footprint than fiberglass (way less than 2x) and less than any foam insulation. The accounting methods will vary those number by a bit, but the relative relationship is fairly consistent across multiple sources of analysis.

      Here is just one of many carbon-comparatives using methods that give credit for carbon sequestration:

      https://materialspalette.org/insulation/

      ...and other, showing a lesser carbon credit for sequestration:

      https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Presentation-of-the-Isonat-product-presented-alongside-ecoinvent-data-on-other-insulation_fig1_280876920

      Here is one that doesn't credit carbon sequestration:

      https://www.buildinggreen.com/sites/default/files/live/images/embodied_GWP_with_title.gif

      https://www.buildinggreen.com/news-article/avoiding-global-warming-impact-insulation

      1. Charlie Sullivan | | #15

        I agree, as well, that "the true comparison is with the alternative products for the exact end use, not some half-baked analysis of lifecycle "savings" of carbon or HVAC energy relative to the embodied energy or carbon of their product. " Really key point.

        1. Deleted | | #23

          “[Deleted]”

      2. User avater
        Jon R | | #18

        > https://materialspalette.org/insulation/

        So XPS and EPS are basically equal? I don't think so.

        > the relative relationship is fairly consistent across multiple sources of analysis

        I see the opposite - numbers are all over the place. Eg, BuildingGreen says mineral wool is 3x worse than fiberglass and XPS is 49 times worse than EPS.

        1. Trevor Lambert | | #19

          EPS and XPS have the same base material, differing mainly in blowing agent, so it makes sense they'd have a similar carbon footprint. That is separate from global warming potential, which is probably what they should be using for comparison instead of carbon.

          1. Malcolm Taylor | | #20

            Trevor,

            i know next to nothing about foam. What is the base material. Are there any more environmentally benign alternatives as a base?

          2. Trevor Lambert | | #21

            Both are polystyrene. Everything I know about alternatives I learned from this site, so I don't feel qualified to comment in that regard.

          3. User avater
            Jon R | | #22

            Carbon footprint is supposed to include the GWP of gases released.

          4. Trevor Lambert | | #24

            In that case, materialspallete is simply wrong, completely out to lunch. The 49:1 ratio for XPS to EPS you cited is at least in the right ball park, given what we know about the warming potential of HFC vs pentane.

        2. User avater
          Dana Dorsett | | #25

          >"> the relative relationship is fairly consistent across multiple sources of analysis

          I see the opposite - numbers are all over the place. Eg, BuildingGreen says mineral wool is 3x worse than fiberglass and XPS is 49 times worse than EPS."
          ----------------------

          The relative greater than/lesser than ordering is fairly consistent across accounting methods, but (clearly) the magnitude of the differences is not. Some analyses account for environmental impacts of fire redardents & polymer types, others not, some only carbon , ignoring blowing agents (ergo EPS== XPS), others the total greenhouse gas components, etc.

          But the impact order placement of mineral wool puts it pretty close to that of fiberglass and lower impact than foamed polymers in almost all lists. (BuildingGreen's CO2-equivalence accounting notwithstanding.)

          1. Charles Campbell | | #27

            Polyiso is missing from Materials Palette. Where does it place?

  6. cherylwilt | | #12

    John Clark in regards to your FYI, that would be impossible as Geostellar is out of business.

    1. John Clark | | #14

      I never claimed whether or not they were still in business. However per the WV Secretary of State the corporation is active and shares the same address as Resist Rockwool. Additional research appears to suggest that they ran into some issues in 2018.

  7. Charlie Sullivan | | #16

    They should team up with the company called "light manufacturing" that makes helioatats for, among other applications, arrays used to provide solar heat for industrial processes.

    https://lm.solar/

  8. Andy Kosick | | #17

    What's most disappointing here is that in 2019 Rockwool didn't site the new facility to make use renewable energy, talk about pathetic status quo. I hope it wasn't for the tax breaks. I wish local governments the world over would agree to stop giving corporations tax breaks, the corporations don't need the money, they should come to a community for the right reasons and pay taxes like everyone else.

  9. David_King | | #26

    I'd thought that rockwool was a byproduct of steel smelting and thus had a very low carbon input (presumably we'd be making that steel anyway). I'd like to think we could find other sources of industrial heat waste near to insulation markets so that prices could be more competitive with fiberblass.
    Re comparisons to fiberglass, how much fiberglass gets replaced every year due to rodent infestation or moisture absorption?

  10. Al Cobb | | #28

    Russell,
    You are correct that very few people showed up to public hearings. BUT, the start of this mess isn't when construction began. It's when the public notice of the air pollution permit was revealed. This permit pushes Jefferson County from the least polluted of 55 Counties to #2 in the State because of one plant.
    I personally don't think it's being blown out of proportion when you live a few miles from heavy industry that dumps thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into the air.
    In addition, you may not agree with the term affluent. However, as a county Jefferson is certainly one of the most affluent in West Virginia. In fact, citing the plant in the name of "jobs" is insulting to the 50+ Counties who desperately need jobs. The average salary RW is paying for plant workers would hardly qualify one to afford a mortgage payment in Jefferson County. Its proximity to Washington DC has driven up home prices substantially over the past 15 years.
    Lastly, as a Business owner in Jefferson County, I can assure you the pickens are so slim in the labor market locally that the vast majority of my hires over the last 2 years have come from out-of-State. The notion that most of Rockwool's hires will be local is a pipe-dream

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