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Heavy-Industry Development, Tax Breaks In Jefferson County Questioned

Construction has started on the controversial Rockwool insulation manufacturing plant. (Brent Walls, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper)
Construction has started on the controversial Rockwool insulation manufacturing plant. (Brent Walls, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper)
May 20, 2019

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Legislature will consider expanding tax breaks around the target="parent">controversial Rockwool project. Opponents say that will hurt the quality of life in the West Virginia county with the lowest unemployment.

The insulation-manufacturing plant under construction in Jefferson County is getting a big break on local taxes, and it sits in a federal Opportunity Zone - a program designed for distressed areas. The governor's proclamation bringing the Legislature back into session Monday includes a proposal to match the federal Opportunity Zones at the state level.

But Regina Hendrix, chair of the eastern panhandle Sierra Club, questioned why it should be done there.

"Any person who wants a factory job and can pass a drug test is already working at Proctor and Gamble,” Hendrix said. “We simply don't have a lot of unemployed people in this county."

County officials defend the tax breaks, saying the area does need more industry. They say the census tracts named Opportunity Zones meet all the federal criteria for high poverty areas. But one of those tracts has a median household income just under $90,000 a year - twice the state average.

Nic Diehl, executive director at the Jefferson County Development Authority, said they want to use Rockwool as a springboard to bring in more advanced manufacturing, light industry and tech. He said the county is much better poised - with ready land, infrastructure and roads - to take advantage of the Opportunity Zones than other parts of the state that have been hit by declining coal production.

"The reality is that there are certain areas of West Virginia that are probably not going to see a lot of activity regardless of whether they're in an opportunity zone or not,” Diehl said. “For example, there are areas in southern West Virginia that certainly meet the criteria but there's not infrastructure, nor are there roads."

But Hendrix said that part of the state is growing because people like her move there for the quality of life. She said retirees and people with good jobs around Washington will stop coming if Rockwool starts pumping out the pollution they expect it to.

And she said truly depressed counties need the tax breaks more, since folks already are moving into Jefferson County.

“If it's going to provide employment,” Hendrix said of the Rockwool project, “it would be better in another part of the state.”

Disclosure: Sierra Club, West Virginia Chapter contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Endangered Species & Wildlife, Environment, Public Lands/Wilderness. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV