Vance: Neighbors Helping Neighbors

A View from the Gap

By Roger Vance

An important story is being written that could have profound impacts on our region’s health and quality of life. Ultimately, the authors of this story are primarily the citizens of Jefferson County, WV, and their neighbors, the citizens of Loudoun County.

Today, virtually no Hazardous Air Pollution (HAP) is released into the atmosphere above Jefferson County. In the future, however, some 392 tons of Hazardous Air Pollution per year may spew from a single Jefferson County manufacturing plant. HAP contains toxins that are known or believed to be harmful to human health.

While on its face the raw numbers are alarming, it is even more revealing to know that the 392 tons of hazardous emissions from the proposed plant would make it the second biggest HAP emitter in the entire state of West Virginia.

Jefferson County abuts Loudoun’s northern boundary, sharing a 17-mile border and some of the region’s most historic sites, scenic landscapes and mountain vistas. But more than mere geography binds Loudoun and Jefferson together, as thousands of residents in this fast-growing West Virginia county work in Loudoun or pass through to their employment every day. Likewise, thousands of Loudoun residents frequent the recreational sites, National Park and entertainment venues situated just across the border in Jefferson.

What we also share is the air we breathe and, as prevailing winds blow over Jefferson into Loudoun, what’s in the air in Jefferson will be in the air in Loudoun. So, it is a legitimate concern of the citizens of Loudoun and their representatives with regard to what pollutants enter the air in Jefferson.

As has recently been well publicized, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has designated the proposed Rockwool insulation manufacturing plant planned in Ranson, WV, about 10 miles from the Loudoun border a “major stationary source” polluter. Whether it was by design or not, the process for permitting and approving this facility was less than transparent to the public in Jefferson County—and all but invisible to the officials, let alone the public, in Loudoun County.

Given the magnitude and reach of the air pollution to be introduced to the region and the potential negative health and economic impacts it may cause, wide public awareness and involvement was warranted ​before​ such a project was permitted. Instead, in this case, it appears the promoters of this project—public officials and private stakeholders—made little effort to apprise the public about the extent and magnitude of pollution this manufacturing operation would inject into the air.

Clearly, the public outcry we are seeing now would certainly have given state officials and political leaders pause had it come prior to the permitting and approval process. Although the company, state and local officials assure that they have followed all of the regulatory requirements and notifications, their obvious intent was to keep awareness—and thus opposition—low among the public until they had their state permits in hand.

Thus, as is too often the case, frustrated citizens find themselves starting from far behind in a contest with a large corporation with much to gain and with public official allies who have paved the way for them. And, in this particular case, a large proportion of the directly impacted public actually resides outside the controlling jurisdiction of authority.

Remarkably however, in just a few short weeks, our neighbors in Jefferson County have nimbly organized and mobilized to create a robust movement in opposition to the Rockwool operation. And they have reached out to their neighbors in Loudoun, alerting us to the imminent environmental and economic threats and soliciting our support.

Fortunately for Loudoun County, we have leaders who will listen and who will lead to protect the interests of their of citizens despite lacking the direct jurisdictional authority to act. At the urging of Chair Phyllis Randall and Supervisors Higgins and Buffington, the Board of Supervisors has instructed the county staff to research the facts and report on any actions Loudoun County may take. And on the federal level, 10th District Representative Barbara Comstock has requested intervention on the part of the Environmental Protection Agency. Likewise, activist organizations in Loudoun are stepping up to join in opposition to the Rockwool plant.

But, the ending of this story will ultimately be penned by the people of Jefferson County who have joined together to lead when their representatives have failed to do so, to fight—for themselves ​and for us—​ against long odds. In turn, we in Loudoun must join our neighbors and support them in every way we can, as their fight is our fight, too.

Roger Vance

[Roger Vance is the mayor of Hillsboro. His column, A View from the Gap, is published monthly in Loudoun Now.]

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