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The Power of Public Comment

How the Jefferson County Seat Heard the Voice of Her People

A Teacher from Fox Glen

Ranson broke away from the neighboring city of Charles Town in 1910 to pursue its destiny “as the industrial hub of Jefferson County anchored by a booming manufacturing economy.” A year ago, in January 2018, Ranson and Charles Town proposed merging their sewer systems and then completed the deal late last year giving the city of Charles Town control of the wastewater treatment services required by Rockwool.

Rockwool was a non-issue over the spring and summer of 2017. Charles Town City Council Member Mike Brittingham remembers the development being presented as a side note in a May meeting of the Ordinance Committee he chaired. It was presented as “by the way, Ranson is opening up development on Route 9 with an amazing financing package from the state,” he said. “We were 100% on board. There was no controversy. It was not on our radar.”

On August 6th, 2018 all that changed. Charles Town city government held a Building Commission meeting at 4pm, then a City Council meeting at 7pm. There was a major protest at the Building Commission meeting that went down the block and extensive public comment against the Rockwool sewer bond. Before the City Council meeting, Brittingham was standing in the vestibule of the Charles Town City Hall chatting with other council and staff members. They were aware of the protests, but the general consensus was that the Ranson development had “not much to do with us.”

Walking into the August 6th meeting Brittingham was sold on the sewer project. “I was prepared to vote yes on the sewer bond and I still didn’t know much about the user. I just knew we were considering the end project of the sewer line,” he said.

“The people who showed up are not who you would expect,” said Brittingham. “They were not your typical protestors. They were the kind of people who would see protest as a negative connotation. They were clearly not a special interest but representative of the population as a whole.”

Brittingham was impressed with the fact that they all had different perspectives and information. There wasn’t an organized message, but they all “cared about stopping the industrialization of Jefferson County.” They saw “Rockwool as just step one. Not the worst polluter on the planet, no worse than other heavy industry, but it was clear that the state wants to industrialize Jefferson County because it’s the easiest to bring in. Advanced manufacturing, tech, clean high-paying jobs for people without a college education or maybe didn’t finish high school that will boost the economy” would be off the table he said. This was “all that West Virginia could accomplish,” and they were expecting Jefferson County to settle for what the State wanted to bring in.

At the conclusion of the meeting, Brittingham summarized his position.

“Sometimes in life you all the sudden have a moment and change your mind. Every time that public hearing comes up I always have my own opinion before it begins but I always try to keep in mind that public hearings are an extremely vital process in forming all of our opinions, as they should be. We can’t be dead set in our opinion before we hear them. And from what I’ve heard tonight, these people are coming here and they’re from Ranson, and they’re from Kearneysville and they’re from Shepherdstown, and you’re right. It’s not our problem. It’s not our problem.

“This is not in Charles Town. We might not have the right to stop it, but I’m a former Marine, I’m a former State Trooper, I’ve been in my volunteer fire department back home since I was 15 years old, although I no longer live there I’m still a member of it. I’ve devoted my life to helping out other people who need help, and these people have been wronged by their representatives that are supposed to be helping them, by the Ranson City Council, by the Jefferson County Commission...

“I watch videos all the time. We’ve all seen one where there’s a fight, or someone’s being assaulted and we ask ourselves ‘why are the four guys standing on the side, who could be intervening and stopping somebody, why aren’t they jumping in. Well damn it, I’ll jump in.”

After the meeting, Brittingham realized that the state of West Virginia “needed a user to start the water, sewer and gas lines, to push the infrastructure. Rockwool was a bad deal financially with all the tax breaks, but that wasn’t the point. The state had the power to do it.” Ranson received over $37 million in direct and indirect incentives according to JCV, including a $2.2M cash grant, an amount about equal to the cost of the real estate purchased from Mark Ralston, to Rockwool in the form of a loan that would be forgiven when the factory employed 120 people. The sewer capacity proposed for state financing was eight times what was needed for Rockwool.

Intense Pressure from the State

By the end of the August 6th meeting, Brittingham “was feeling like I was taken advantage of” and had been “left in the dark. After hearing the public comment and starting to piece together how we got to here, I moved to reverse course.” Brittingham realized that certain county and municipal staff members and appointed officials were working their own plan in the background and pressuring elected officials by scheduling meetings as quickly as possible and disclosing as little as possible.

“When I got home that night I sat in my garage until the early hours of the morning and watched over the recordings from various meetings and I started to piece together my feelings about the meetings in the months prior. I wondered at the unusual pace and frequency, and I started to remember back to uneasy feelings in those meetings, information that was omitted, comments at committee and other council meetings. I saw how the same individuals that had pushed for frequent meetings seemed visibly upset by the prospect that project could be delayed and the company could change course.” That night Brittingham placed calls into the early morning to colleagues that were still up “to see if others had the same feelings, to see if mine matched up with theirs, to see if we may been taken advantage of or persuaded to do the wrong thing.”

Over the next month, Brittingham dug into the details and asked questions. After bearing the brunt of Brittingham’s grilling at the the September 4th, 2018 Charles Town City Council meeting, Bjoern Andersen, the Senior Vice President for Operations visiting from Denmark, stated that “If you actually got to know us, you would see we are not the devil in disguise.”

Brittenham replies, “I would disagree with you on that. When I said 18 tons of pollutants in this county prior to you coming here I was corrected. It was 18 pounds, less than my cat weighs. To be honest, 550 tons is a three million percent increase in pollutants. And so while I agree you have met the qualification, it’s just simply an industry we have never had to rely upon, that has never helped us in this county at any point, and we’ve watched it help deteriorate the rest of West Virginia and we don’t want it here. That’s all I’m simply saying.”

Brittingham concluded by stating, “while you’ll do everything in your power to get that plant here, I’ll do everything in my power to oppose it.” For what seemed like 20 minutes Brittingham locked eyes with Andersen. I checked the video, and it was 5 seconds.

Meanwhile, Rockwool went on a charm offensive, taking one council member on a tour of Jefferson County to see the areas of poverty and promising to provide charity. The council member, Michael Tolbert, described the conversation to a local paper as “quiet,” “civil” and “respectful.” Tolbert then extended the satanic metaphor system initiated by Andersen in his confrontation with Brittingham. “I did check,” he added, “but I detected no wings, no fangs, no sulphur smell… They are humans.”

Shaun Amos, a nurse who lives in Harpers Ferry, responded to Tolbert in his public comment at the November 5th, 2018 meeting of the Charles Town City Council. “Well, I would tell you if Satan really had horns and a tail and a pitchfork precious few people would end up in the fiery pit. Satan himself is a liar and these people are liars.” He then went through a litany of untruths and false statements by Rockwool about health concerns, complaints and irregularities at their factories across the globe.

According to Nicky Heim, a resident of Charles Town, the lies from Rockwool have become so prolific her documentation now stretches to over 40 pages. After she mentions a few in her public comment, Mike Brittingham conducts a master class in exposing misinformation. Rockwool Vice President USA Operations Peter Regenberg has provided information for the water consumption and discharge at the Byhalia, MS plant to give Charles Town a sense of what to expect.

During the questioning, Regenberg admits that the Mississippi plant doesn’t have it’s own flow meter, so it’s possible that the information he has provided is incorrect. He makes claims about the use of rainwater, which Brittingham reveals is prohibited in Rockwool’s contract with Jefferson Utilities, Inc. (JUI). From the numbers provided by Regenberg, Brittingham points out that it is likely Rockwool is violating their discharge permit during any month when the discharge is above average.

Brittingham summarizes the the frustration of the Charles Town City Council by stating, “to my fellow council members, the reason I’m so upset is because every time we see a fact, every time we see something documented, every single time we see something written on paper, and we ask a question about it because it doesn’t add up we’re told we’re not supposed to believe what we’re reading, that the words don’t mean what they mean, that the numbers don’t mean what they are. How many times are we going to let this company tell us something that is absolutely not true. And we sit here and we prove it in these meetings, at least I attempt to, and we don’t vote on this, we don’t talk about it, we do talk about it, we have to talk about the elephant in the room, why are we still dealing with this issue. I truly don’t understand it. Just in this short presentation alone, yes of course I’m prepared I’m prepared to show that every time he throws something out there oh we disagree with these numbers we disagree with that i’m not prepared to talk about that its right here, it’s right here. I’m sorry. I’m upset. This conversation needs to take place.

“The constantly changing (and increasing) numbers for Rockwool's wastewater discharge are a clear case of why the people of Jefferson County cannot trust Rockwool,” wrote citizen researcher Addison Reece in a Facebook post by way of introduction to the reference materials.

The NPDES permit application from October 2 said 'a maximum of 14,900 Gallons Per Day' (GPD) will be discharged as non-domestic wastewater.

The public notice and modification from October 31 has a letter from the DEP stating, 'The non-domestic wastewater approved for acceptance consists of Reverse Osmosis (RO) reject wastewater and water softener wastewater...The maximum daily volume accepted shall not exceed 17,000 gallons per day.

Rockwool sent a letter to the Charles Town Utility Board, dated January 24, 2019, which said, 'Rockwool's anticipated sanitary sewer discharge is 27,550 gallons per day.' When questioned by CTUB, Rockwool said they would send a correction letter. The correction, dated February 5, 2019, states that 'Rockwool's anticipated sanitary sewer discharge is 46,800 GPD, consisting of 14,000 GPD domestic sewage and 32,800 industrial sewage.

They've been evasive and inconsistent about their wastewater discharge," Reece concludes, “but the more disturbing question is, what's actually going to be in this water and how can we trust them to disclose the facts?”

When Brittingham tries to bring forward a vote to pull back the sewer permit application from the DEP, the parliamentarian determines they can’t do that now, but Brittingham can put it on the calendar for the next meeting. At issue is the authority of the Charles Town Council to act directly on an application submitted by the Charles Town Utility Board (CTUB), a separate organization, to the DEP. CTUB was responsible for the engineering, the Building Commission for the approval of the sewer line and the City Council for the financing. At their next meeting, the Charles Town City Council voted to postpone consideration of the sewer bond until after the new year.

At the next Charles Town City Council meeting, December 3rd, Brittingham’s instincts prove accurate. John Stump, the utility bond attorney from Steptoe & Johnson who represents many of the parties to the PILOT agreement and appears to have orchestrated some of the legal maneuvers at the municipal, county and state level, Hoy Shingleton, CTUB counsel and Kristen Stolipher, CTUB assistant utility manager and longtime former CTUB board member, revealed under questioning that Ranson had already spent $1 million on the project which, with $42,000 in interest, $25,000 spent by an engineering firm and $9,000 for the work performed by Hatch Chester in pursuit of a 1,000 to 1,400 acre industrial zone, had secretly become obligations of the City of Charles Town with the consolidation of their water districts, not disclosed in the due diligence materials provided over the course of the merger. Members of the unwitting Charles Town City Council were visibly upset.

An observer of the exchange posted on Facebook “LMAO when Kristen Stolipher started to talk I was sitting behind John Stump OMG the dude about upset the chair and kicked over 2 of his water bottles to get to the podium to shut her up. And he had this giant boot on his foot falling over people getting there. Stump then states ‘I accept full responsibility for you all not knowing about that $1 million.’”

Left to Right, Hoy Shingleton, CTUB attorney, Kristin Stolipher, CTUB Assistant Utility Manager, and John Stump, bond counsel from Steptoe and Johnson respond to questions from the Charles Town City Council. photocredit Billie Garde

When the DEP came to town the next month for public comment on CTUB’s application for a wastewater National Pollutant Discharge and Elimination System (NPDES) permit at the Ranson Civic Center to serve Rockwool, Jefferson County turned up in force. Over three dozen individuals provided testimony asked the DEP to reject the permit, and many called on CTUB to withdraw the permit application at their meeting a couple days later on December 12th.

During the DEP hearing David Yaussy, an attorney with Spilman Thomas testified on behalf of Rockwool that “Rockwool has requested sewer service from the utility board, which is required by state law to provide service to any customer in its territory.... For CTUB, the utility board to comply with the law and provide service to Rockwool, it must modify its national pollutant discharge elimination system, or NPDES, permit… The sewer line that will be constructed between Rockwool and the CTUB sewer plant will either be constructed cost free to CTUB customers with the aid of state financing, or CTUB customers will pay for it in future years in accordance with the rules of the public service commission.”

Mr. Patel of the DEP stated to a member of CCAR "'I know the rule Rockwool is referring to about having to provide services. It's a PSC rule and it doesn't apply in this case. Charles Town applied for the permit. Charles Town has the upper hand in this situation. No one can force Charles Town to take Rockwool wastewater.' I followed up by asking, 'Do they know that? Rockwool is constantly threatening to sue them.' He smiled and reiterated, 'No one can force them to take the wastewater. We're here because Charles Town submitted the permit.'"

Hoy Shingleton, CTUB’s lawyer, stated that the requirement to serve Rockwool with wastewater treatment is in the PSC rules 5.5. “A sewer utility whether public or privately-owned is under a public service obligation to extend its mains and it’s plant and facilities to serve new customers within its service area who may apply for service.”

Shingleton then editorializes on the benefits of the state bond financing, such as downside protection if ratepayers decrease and industry moves out of town, as well as why the state financing will probably have to be accepted. Then Shingleton states that everyone needs to defer to the DEP on environmental issues.

“We’re not experts and you’re not experts on environmental issues. That’s what the DEP is supposed to do. You’re not the first group of people who say ‘will they sell us short,’ and so forth and so on. The coal companies say the same thing. That’s the daggone system we have, unfortunately. That’s it.” Then he states that we can’t pull the application and refuse to build extend service for lack of a permit.

As several people mentioned in the hearing, the DEP has never refused a wastewater discharge permit, and many many rivers and streams in the state are impaired. Shingleton’s claim that the coal companies have similar complaints about the DEP selling them short is revealing. Shingleton doesn’t want CTUB to pull the application.

Board member Michael Slover summarizes the issue, “Yes we have to take the wastewater that is bathroom waste and stuff like that, but we don’t have to request a modification to accept the industrial waste, correct?” Shingleton disagrees. He says that might be correct from the DEP’s standpoint, but not the PSC. Shingleton states that the PSC would demand a DEP application, and suggests that CTUB wait for the results. Slover also notes that the DEP permit will be based on information provided by Rockwool, which Charles Town has seen is not very complete. “If the data is not great, then the results will not be very accurate.”

Then Shingleton suggests that the best way to deal with Rockwool is on enforcement. “Let’s say Roxul (Rockwool) is built and they go into pretty consistent non-compliance with their discharge permit. I believe there is going to be daily monitoring of their discharges out there. If that were the case what is eventually going to happen is they’re going to be shut down. They’re not going to shut down the treatment plant, you shut them down by turning their water off. You do that now in an extreme case, at a much smaller scale. You have a restaurant in town and have their grease traps cleaned and they’re putting too much stuff in the sewer system you cut the water off and that shuts the restaurant down.”

This is essentially the same argument being made on the air permit. In both cases, it is a technical discharge limit that was negotiated with industry, not based on an environmental or health standard. Any pollution is unacceptable, and unnecessary, to the Jefferson County citizens. The clear message is that there is nothing that can be done to stop it, and enforcement through the same DEP would be a nightmare of bureaucracy. Where Shingleton presents the system as what we have, and what everyone has to work within, the citizens present recognized the futility of worrying about non-compliance when the permitted discharge is already way too much.

Meanwhile, that same day of the CTUB meeting, Tim Ross drove to Charleston to speak to the IJDC and let them know that things aren’t going well in Jefferson County. John Reisenweber, the former JCDA executive director who recruited Rockwool to Jefferson County, is a board member of the IJDC and sits facing Ross.

Ross begins by stating that he’s here “to give some information and ask for your help” about what’s going on with the development over in Charles Town… it was just a little over a year ago that the words were spoken in this office that “Madam Chairman the West Virginia Development Office has received the commission has received and approved an application from the Jefferson County Development Authority for infrastructure for $4.52 million... The richest county in the state got over $13M at zero percent for economic development, that includes the sewer from Ranson. After the approval, there were seven members of this board that expressed their enthusiasm for the entire project. It wasn’t only for Rockwool, which is a Danish company, but that there were hundreds of acres that were primed for development in Jefferson County. So for the next few minutes, I’m going to give you an update on how things are going with the West Virginia Development Office’s plan for Jefferson County. And in a nutshell, it’s not good.”

Ross makes it clear that the industrialization is not wanted by the citizens of Jefferson County, and that the project is being driven by the state of West Virginia. He reads into the record correspondence between municipal, county and state participants that were provided to JCV as part of the Ranson FOIA request. In these documents, Ranson notes that Mark Ralston, as the owner of Jefferson Orchards, is the primary beneficiary and that it will be important that the land be priced to encourage further industrialization.

Ross also lets them know that Charles Town was recently surprised to learn that the “debt-free” project actually came with an obligation of over $1 million incurred by Ranson. Over the course of about 15 minutes, Ross presents an unwanted project in complete disarray.

At the next IJDC meeting, Reisenweber had Ross’ testimony stricken from the record and then the IJDC simply increases the funding to cover the Ranson obligation totaling over a million dollars.

Rockwool was the subject of two separate items on the January 22nd, 2019 Charles Town City Council Agenda. The first is the sewer bond.

Kristen Stolipher of CTUB affirms that the industrial sewer system will have eight times the capacity necessary for Rockwool. Council Member Michael Tolbert draws out the conclusion that the main line extension is less for Rockwool and more for the owners and developers of Jefferson Orchards, who can benefit from future industrial growth.

The initial Ranson sewer extension was to cost $7 million. CTUB increased the capacity and the IJDC raised the bond to $10.5 million for the industrial development. There is a suggestion from Council Member Ann Paonessa that the county lacks wastewater treatment capacity, but this project and bond financing is not going to serve the communities that are growing.

Mike Brittingham adds that CTUB would perform better without state financing. His argument is that the 30-year loan is revenue neutral, whereas if Rockwool is forced to build the capacity CTUB would receive $400,000 in annual revenue after the first 14 years, which it can use to reduce costs for other ratepayers.

Since Ranson already spent $1 million on the engineering and design, it’s possible Rockwool would invest in the larger capacity, rather than a sewer just for itself. The way the PSC rules work, Rockwool would make money when others connect to the line. Recently, though, Rockwool asked for the cost of accepting only their sewage.

The agenda item concluded with the Charles Town City Council agreeing to vote on the sewer bond at the first meeting in March. The City Council has come a long way since the August 6th meeting when the sewer bond was expected to breeze through. Brittingham credits the progress to a functioning council that genuinely “gets along and works toward a common goal.” He realizes that a cohesive municipal governing body is a threat to the state and industrial interests in the current climate. “God forbid,” he says “we do this through the lens of factual information.”

Jefferson County Vision (JCV) is sponsoring a petition against the sewer bond. Jefferson County citizens led by Morgan Sell, an organizer with Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool-Ranson (CCAR), a campaign of JCV, have been canvassing in Charles Town collecting signatures on a sewer bond petition . If 30% of the property owners within the city limits sign the petition then a supermajority of 4 out of 5 Charles Town council members, rather than a simple majority, would be required to pass the sewer bond.

Fearing the bond will fail, Rockwool has asked for an estimate from CTUB for the cost of a sewer line that would only handle Rockwool’s capacity, and that they would finance, rather than the full industrial zone plan.

Next, the City of Charles Town joined several towns in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland publicly proclaiming their opposition to the Rockwool factory by passing Paonessa’s resolution. Council Member Nick Zaglifa opposed the resolution as ineffective, divisive and unlikely to “relieve the immense pressure brought to us by the state of West Virginia as far as this project goes.” Tolbert pointed to the fact that the Jefferson County Comprehensive Plan did not include heavy industry. He felt that the plan is important and should have been followed.

Brittingham again mentioned the importance of public comment since August. “We get dozens of people here every single meeting talking. Tonight was literally the first time we’ve ever had anyone in favor of this project show up to speak with us. I take offense when people call this a dividing topic. It’s not. It’s not a dividing topic. It’s controversial, for sure. But it’s not dividing. 'Dividing' means you have two equal sides that disagree about something. In this scenario, when the dozen or so people on the internet want to scream as loud as they can about it, it doesn’t change the numbers. The numbers are something like 95 to 5 or a 90/10 issue. The overwhelming majority of our community is against this thing. And we owe it to them. We can’t just sit here day in day out and listen to these people come up here and speak and act like we have no position on this whatsoever.”

Mayor Scott Rogers characterized the issue as central to the values of the community. “I for one think the whole Rockwool thing is immoral. I think building a factory next to an elementary school is about the most immoral thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life. I think this whole project has lacked transparency, accountability and it all borders on something that no people should ever have to go through. People never had a choice. This was foisted in our lap, I still don’t have all the info on this project shuttle and how it came here and where it’s going. I think Rockwool will fundamentally damage our local economy for a generation to come. It’s going to decimate home values in the region around where it’s going to be built and I for one think we should go on the record and say we don’t want something that’s going to be located next to Charles Town that’s going to fundamentally damage our economy, damage our way of life and fundamentally damage the lives of people throughout this county. While my son doesn’t go to that elementary school, the children of people I know do. Those are our children. We have a responsibility to those children and we shouldn’t leave them hanging. By making this statement people know where we stand. And we have to stand with what is moral and what is right.”

Mayor Rogers told me after the meeting that he was duped by Rockwool. “Admittedly I had met with their reps, but they said ‘we’re a sustainable company, we’re a green company.’ They greenwashed what their production was all about.” It wasn’t until “someone had posted the air quality permit as well as other information on the production process” on Facebook that he thought “my god what are we doing here. Once I had information on the true nature of what they would be emitting I was horrified.”

Rogers was also shocked at how fast grassroots opposition to the plant materialized “out of thin air.”

“We had protesters up and down the street,” he said. “that was a game changer how the opposition to the plant was united. You have every political viewpoint expressed in the opposition and everyone was willing to work together. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life.”

The tragedy is that “some peoples' rights had been trampled by state government and the JCDA. There was no transparency and a lack of care for the individuals who live in the county, for their rights and their lives.”

Rogers sees the Rockwool issue as illustrative of “how far Ranson has pulled away” from the norms of municipal behavior. “It’s not what I had talked about with Ranson and what they had planned.”

Rogers doesn’t understand why they don’t cooperate more. “It’s in their hands. They can stop it. The threats of lawsuits are just to intimidate elected officials. Ranson should do more to pull out. They could do it tomorrow.”

Since the JCDA “didn’t provide the information to any of the parties to the PILOT agreement necessary to make an informed decision, they should all withdraw from the PILOT,” including the JCC, Board of Education and Ranson.

The very basis of the agreement, “with the JCDA owning the plant and leasing it back, is not an appropriate action. It’s troubling.”

Rogers is also “troubled that there is now a litmus test on new appointments to the JCDA, which is not appropriate. We could have it up to 12 board members and have functioning governance, but some commissioners are trying to ensure there is a pro-Rockwool majority” instead of leaving it up to qualified people to make informed decisions.

Rogers would like to see Senator Manchin more involved, with the goal of any meetings to find a more suitable location out of the Eastern Panhandle. Rogers tweeted that the West Virginia legislature and federal government need to look into all aspects of the project, review the lack of transparency and why the community was blindsided. “I still don’t have all the information I need as Mayor, I can only imagine how members of the public feel.”

At some point, he believes there will be a full account that cuts through the “lack of transparency and secrecy.” He concludes it’s a moral issue. “These are our kids, these are our schools. It would be wrong for me as Mayor to leave people behind.”

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