Liz McCormick Published

Air Pollution Discussion Sparks More Concern About Potential Rockwool Plant Impacts

Clinical Associate Professor Michael McCawley of the West Virginia University School of Public Health moderated the symposium on air pollution at the Clarion Inn in Harpers Ferry. Photo taken Sat., Apr. 27, 2019.

Community members from Jefferson County, West Virginia and nearby areas came together last weekend to hear from scientific experts from around the country about air pollution and its impacts. The event’s aim was to speak “plainly” about the issue, specifically as it pertains to Rockwool – a stone wool manufacturing company setting up shop in Jefferson County.

Ten scientists and researchers who study public health, air quality, and environmental health spoke in Harpers Ferry Saturday.

The symposium called “Educate, Empower, Protect: Our Health and Environment” was sponsored by the Jefferson County group, Rural Agricultural Defenders as well as the West Virginia Public Health Association.

“One of the purposes of the symposium was to be very welcoming to all points of view and not just anti-Rockwool point of view. They already have their position and so does everybody else, but science can sometimes transcend that,” Shenandoah Junction resident and lead organizer Patricia Stephenson said. “And maybe it is a grounds for us to open up a dialogue, so we can have a little more give and take about where the concerns are and the reality of the situation.”

Rockwool is a Denmark-based company that is in the process of building a stone wool manufacturing plant in Jefferson County across the street from an elementary school. It will feature two, 21-story smokestacks releasing a range of chemicals.

The issue has sparked heated debate within the region – especially over the question of how it will affect air quality and the school children nearby.

The consensus among Saturday’s speakers was that the plant’s emissions would affect the area in a negative way, but by how much and in what way would only be known over time. Speakers noted air pollution levels fluctuate every day and are affected by all sorts of things; from our cars, pesticides, plants, hospitals even, and of course industry.

And if two people breathe in air pollution – each person will respond differently.

“The problem is, what’s on [an air quality] permit and what comes out of a [smokestack] are not always the same,” Jaime Hart said. Hart was one of the ten speakers. She’s an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Channing Division of Network Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital at Harvard University Medical School and School of Public Health.

“I think it’s often the first couple years of an industry to know what’s really coming out, and is that what was predicted? Or are there factors that mean that even though somebody has done the work to put in the scrubber that was required, or controlled technology that were required; are they working?”

Hart noted it’s important to also look at the whole picture of potential air pollutants when trying to understand effects, and not just at what might be coming out of the stacks; to note things like weather patterns, temperature, the lay of the land, or increased traffic in and out of the plant.

Another speaker, Laura Anderko, is a professor and endowed chair at Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies and the director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment.

Anderko said there’s always give and take when industry sets up in urban or rural areas – jobs versus pollution, and decisions have to be made when considering safety of children.

“There’s ways to do workarounds; bringing the kids in during those peaks in pollution, but in the end, is that really what we want?” she said. “We want kids to play outside, we want kids to enjoy nature and the outdoors and not worry that they’re going to develop asthma or ADHD, or any range of neurological deficits just as a result of going to school.”

Anderko said that while Rockwool may have followed the letter of the law in terms of federal and state environmental regulations, she argued these regulations are not protective enough of vulnerable populations like children and the elderly.

All ten speakers encouraged residents to work together and purchase their own air quality monitors and collect their own data now and after Rockwool is built. But they also cautioned to make sure data collected is accurate, otherwise state and federal officials would not take their research seriously.

Rockwool’s air quality permit was approved by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection last April. The plant is expected to be operational by mid-2020.