Dec. 14–Frederick County residents will soon be reminded that air doesn’t recognize state borders.
Less than a 15-mile drive from Brunswick in Ranson, West Virginia, a 460,000-square-foot mineral wool insulation manufacturing plant has been proposed and is under preliminary construction. In the past year, debate on the project has transformed from local objections to the location of the plant near schools, to one on possible air pollution crossing state lines.
“If you’re downstream or downwind, none of those ill effects respect state boundaries,” said Ron Kaltenbaugh, a Frederick County resident and environmental advocate.
Kaltenbaugh has been fighting the construction of the Rockwool insulation plant in Ranson since before he knew there was a plant.
Initially, he became involved in opposition to the construction of a natural gas pipeline through Washington County, under the Potomac River and into West Virginia. At the time, he was told the gas was destined for residential homes, but it seemed — even then — cost prohibitive to build the pipeline only to service houses. His hunch was correct with information on a future planned extension of the pipeline to the Rockwool site later coming to light.
When he heard what the pipeline was really destined to do, Kaltenbaugh said he paused. He considered whether he should spend the time looking into the project, since West Virginia “has a history of rubber stamping,” he said.
At a public hearing in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in October, however, it was clear people were mad, he said.
Though technically in the city of Ranson, the Rockwool plant will sit on a property in the far northern corner of the municipality. The property is so far north that it is closer to Kearneysville than most of Ranson, and Shepherdstown is a short drive up W.Va.-480.
At the meeting in Shepherdstown, the audience was standing room only and there was a list of speakers 30 minutes deep before Kaltenbaugh could get to the microphone. As each speaker took a their turn, the same theme came up repeatedly: People were tired of being dumped on in West Virginia.
“It was very clear, the town was against it,” Kaltenbaugh said.
Rockwool is a multi-national producer of mineral wool insulation that operates 45 manufacturing plants in 39 countries.
When constructed, the Ranson site will be the brand’s second manufacturing plant in the U.S. The company estimates it will begin its first quarter in Ranson in 2020.
“This new production site places us close to major population centers in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic, and mid-western United States. We’re growing along with the market, and we look forward to serving our customers’ need from this new facility,” said Trent Ogilvie, president of the Rockwool subsidiary Roxul, in prepared remarks released earlier this year.
To build the plant, the company first needed to show it would not cause any significant deterioration to the air quality of the area or surpass other federal standards.
In December 2017, the company submitted its initial Air Quality Assessment of the predicted emissions from the plant, which the company concluded would have significant emissions of nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide — both of which are precursors of ground-level ozone, also known as smog — as well as particulate matter. However, further modeling found that only the 1-hour standard for sulfur dioxide would be out of compliance with state and federal rules.
Roxul stated in the assessment that the plant’s actual sulfur dioxide output would be only a fraction of the modeled emissions.
“We use highly efficient de-sulphurization technology to control these emissions. The modelling shows that even in the case of an additional 30 percent [sulfur dioxide] emissions over an hour, the impacts are within the relevant federal standards,” Michael Zarin, vice president of communications for Rockwool, said by email on Thursday.
However, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called the sulfur dioxide calculation “somewhat unorthodox” in its comments in April. Specifically, the agency noted, Rockwool wanted to calculate a 30-day rolling average — allowing the plant to emit 30 percent more sulfur dioxide than is allowed at certain times — for emissions from its melting furnace.
The agency later acknowledged that the rolling average limits were similar to those at Roxul’s other mineral wool plant in Byhalia, Mississippi. And the West Virginia Division of Air Quality agreed the rolling average was “reasonable and has similar precedent in other recent permitting actions.”
The EPA could not respond to questions on the sulfur dioxide emission in time for publication.
On April 30, the EPA, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Roxul agreed the Rockwool plant in Ranson would not violate National Ambient Air Quality Standards and was issued a permit to construct.
When asked if West Virginia was required to asses air pollution movement across state lines, West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Jake Glance said, “Rockwool does not cause or contribute to any violations of the [National Ambient Air Quality Standards] in any state included within the modeling domain.”
Maryland has fought interstate transport of air pollution before.
Notably, the state sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in September 2017 when it failed to respond to a petition filed under the Clean Air Act that requested five upwind states be required to run existing pollution control equipment at power plants that were harming Maryland’s air and contributing to the production of smog.
While the petition was denied, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Attorney General Brian Frosh (D) are challenging the decision in federal court.
“We don’t agree with EPA and will continue to insist on Clean Air Act protections for Marylanders,” Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles said by email in November. “We submitted a comprehensive, science-based petition that made the case for requiring certain power plants in upwind states to reduce their pollution. Now we are turning to the courts to overturn EPA’s flawed decision. Clean air matters to Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay and we’re committed to winning this case.”
Maryland also petitioned the EPA to expand the Ozone Transport Region to add nine more states, including West Virginia, to reduce emissions from out-of-state sources, said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment. The EPA denied that petition.
Maryland and other states are challenging the decision in court.
“If the EPA decision is reversed, there could be tougher regulatory requirements for this facility,” Apperson said in an email in November.
As the review time on remaining permits winds down, some Frederick County residents near the border of West Virginia have started to think about life after Rockwool.
Paul Walker, who owns 35 acres of mature hardwood forest adjacent to the Appalachian Trail, worries how the future emissions from the plant may affect the wildlife habits and small-room-renting business he offers from his cabin.
“If you look at the map and where Rockwool is in Ranson, I’m less than 25 miles northeast,” Walker said.
His mother acquired the land in the 1950s and he has owned it for the past 25 years — making it his full-time home in 2000. There is a state forest conservation agreement on the property, which guides how the woodlands are maintained.
“I love it because it’s just clean air and [the] forest health is good. It’s good for the environment,” said Walker, who is also a member of the Catoctin Group of the Maryland Sierra Club.
What is unknown is what the plant will eventually carry through the air to his slice of the forest.
“It certainly could effect me, too,” Walker said.
As safeguards, Rockwool will be required to apply for a Title V air operating permit — a federal permit required for all major sources of emissions that could exceed the air pollution limits — within a year of commencing operation, Glance said. The company has also publicly stated that it is working with a third-party company to complete a science-based study to recommend an appropriate air monitoring set up. Rockwool plans to make the data publicly available.
“We are entirely confident in saying there will be no negative health or environmental consequences for Jefferson County, WV or Frederick County, MD,” Zarin said by email on behalf of Rockwool.
Zarin also noted it’s important to distinguish between the volume of emissions that come out of the chimney stacks and the concentration of those emissions at groundlevel.
“The two are related but it’s the latter that determines the health and environmental impacts,” Zarin said. “And on the latter, our emissions will be well below levels even the Sierra Club in its 2015 lawsuit against the EPA accepted as being safe for sensitive populations such as children, the elderly, and asthmatics.”
The impending Rockwool plant has George Rudy, a retired nuclear consultant, shifting his focus to the air.
“As a citizen and a citizen that’s associated with qualified and concerned environmental groups, we absolutely don’t want to undo what we’re trying to correct — which is to get rid of contaminating sources in our community,” Rudy said.
After a protracted fight in Frederick County to stop the construction of an incinerator, he could not sit and watch a manufacturing plant be built and “dump” particulate matter and other pollution on Frederick County.
“We don’t want it, and we’re going to take steps legally to correct it,” Rudy said.
Follow Samantha Hogan on Twitter: @SAHogan.
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