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Rockwool Could Get Fed'l. Tax Break Meant for Depressed Areas

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In the most recent period, Jefferson County had the lowest unemployment rate in West Virginia. In spite of this, six of the county's 15 census tracts have been designated "Opportunity Zones." (Census/OpportunityDB/Dan Heyman)
In the most recent period, Jefferson County had the lowest unemployment rate in West Virginia. In spite of this, six of the county's 15 census tracts have been designated "Opportunity Zones." (Census/OpportunityDB/Dan Heyman)
 By Dan HeymanContact
May 13, 2019

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — The controversial Rockwool heavy-industry project could get a big federal tax break designed for poor areas - despite being in one of West Virginia's richest counties.

The Rockwool proposal for an insulation-manufacturing plant has drawn intense opposition from critics, who say it would bring industrial pollution to Jefferson County, an already fast-growing bedroom community near Washington, D.C. But Rockwool's census tract was named as a federal Opportunity Zone, meaning the company could defer or maybe never pay capital-gains taxes.

Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, questions the reasoning, when the program is meant for distressed areas.

"I'm not saying that people aren't struggling in Jefferson County. But Jefferson County, West Virginia, is one of the most prosperous counties, if not the most prosperous county in the entire state,” DiStefano said. “Why do they have so many Opportunity Zones in Jefferson County?"

A news release from the governor's office stressed the tax break would help "revitalize" parts of the state. In the same release, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said she was proud to co-sponsor what she refered to as "tax reform," to "attract investment in areas that need it most."

Of the six census tracts designated as Opportunity Zones in Jefferson County, only two are in areas with average household incomes below the state median - and the Rockwool plant would be in neither. The other designated tracts are in areas with average incomes well above the median for the state and the nation - one is just under $90,000 a year.

DiStefano said that undermines confidence in the entire program.

"It makes you ask some very serious questions. There is a desperate need for transparency here as to why the 55 places in West Virginia were designated as Opportunity Zones,” he said. “And that is a question the legislature should demand accountability on."

One Rockwool critic argued the process has been "manipulated," and that Opportunity Zones are unnecessary in a county which already has the state's lowest jobless rate and a fast-growing population and economy.

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