For rock music aficionados, the name Billy Cross might ring a bell. This hip, shaggy-haired New Yorker played guitar way back when with Bob Dylan on two records (Bob Dylan at Budokan, Street-Legal). Cross parted ways with Dylan in the late 1970s and quickly landed on his feet in Denmark, where he’s resided ever since. Cross, now forever young at age 72, is openly proud of his adopted country and its high taxes, which pay for traditional Danish values of tolerance, social responsibility, and shared opportunity for all. In fact, Cross recorded a song a few years ago with the fist-pumping refrain:
“We all pay our taxes/We all pay our taxes/Denmark rocks every day of the year.”
While the song evoked pride in many a Dane, it also aroused a tug of nostalgia for the good-old socialist days in this nation of over 5 million people. Indeed, the high-tax, egalitarian Denmark that greeted Cross in the 1970s, has cracked a bit under the weight of global neoliberalism and its mantra that greed is a social good. The country’s growing Danish political Right now routinely floats trial balloons about privatizing highways, limiting free healthcare and education, and, most recently, housing unwanted immigrants on an island until further notice.
This psychic tug of war between the comforts of old-fashioned socialism and the economic possibilities of newfangled neoliberalism has now landed with a thud in, of all places, the pristine hills of Jefferson County, West Virginia, about 70 miles northwest of Washington, D. C. That’s where the Danish insulation giant Rockwool has its sights set on building a $150-million factory that would hire somewhere between 120 and 140 employees, many of them not necessarily locals. The factory is part of Rockwell’s expansion into the American insulation market.
But Rockwool won’t be joining Cross any time soon in his pro-tax, Denmark rocks refrain. Assisted by powerful state and creative local political operatives interested in bringing blue-collar jobs to Jefferson County, Rockwool cut a top-secret deal (code named “Project Shuttle”) to build its factory in a former Jefferson County apple orchard and pay almost no taxes. Here’s just some of the story:
* Rockwool will pay no property taxes. The “future home of Rockwool” will be owned by the county development authority, which will lease the land to the company to take property taxes off the table.
* Personal property taxes will also be a snap. Rockwool will pay a 5 percent tax on the “salvage” value of its factory equipment, which the Danes will progressively depreciate over the course of their 10-year land lease.
* Rockwool also wants to hand over a wad of cash up front in lieu of paying its fair share in taxes each year to support local public schools.
None of the above was known publicly in September 2017 when Rockwool, under Project Shuttle’s veil of darkness, signed a memorandum-of-understanding (MOU) to build its factory. Not many in this tranquil county of nearly 57,000 people knew that the Danes were coming.
Nor was anyone aware that the apple orchard, across the road from an elementary school, had been mysteriously rezoned for heavy industry, and the Danes have first dibs on a significant amount of local water as well as a thumbs up for more than 100 trucks per day to rumble in and out of the factory along mostly two-lane rural roads.
To put this secretive deal in perspective, Jefferson County held three public hearings for a recent proposal to allow restaurants to serve alcohol at Sunday brunches. Not one public hearing was held to weigh the pros and cons of opening up the county to heavy industry for jobs that mostly pay below $40,000 per year.
In fact, the low-paying jobs and the promised immediate “multiplier effect” of building the factory won’t provide much of a sustainable bump to the local economy. Nor, unlike in other parts of the state, is the bump desperately needed. Because Jefferson County is within commuting distance of booming Washington, many residents draw their paychecks from salaried government and corporate positions. Federal jobs can also be had in the county, and the same goes for solid private-sector employment. In fact, the county’s unemployment rate comes in well below the national average at 3.7 percent.
That’s why county residents were shocked to learn last spring that this hastily announced, presumed small-scale factory will operate massive, coal-fired ovens vented day and night through 21-story smokestacks. By Rockwool’s own state-mandated best guesstimate, those smokestacks will emit 156,000 tons of ick per year into the county’s clean air. That number would double within five years, placing Rockwool high among the state’s polluters.
Those numbers launched a concerned citizens Facebook page that swelled within weeks to more than 8,000 members. “Toxic Rockwool” signs, like mushrooms, sprouted up in pastures and in front of homes. Citizens began comparing notes and filing Freedom of Information requests. This seemingly benign Scandinavian company had now become the number one existential threat to the county’s future.
And that’s extremely ironic. Rockwool is a self-described “Green” company. Google Rockwool, and you’ll find it’s a commercial sponsor of Denmark’s State of Green, a public-private partnership and entry point “to all leading Danish players working to drive the global transition to a sustainable, low-carbon, resource-efficient society.” From all indications, Rockwool is an avid supporter of Denmark’s ambitious goal of cutting its carbon emissions to zero by the year 2050.
How does Rockwool fit into the Green mix? The answer seems to go like this: Its “superior” insulation product – spun from melted rocks – makes buildings, which reportedly account for more than one-third of all CO2-producing energy consumption more efficient. That translates to lower oil or electricity consumption over time.
The answer also requires a pragmatic leap of faith. By giving Rockwool the freedom to burn tons and tons of air polluting coal, petcoke, and some slag to produce its “superior” product, the far-sighted benefits outweigh the immediate ecological harms. That’s the argument anyway.
Back in West Virginia, Rockwool officials claimed there was a colossal misunderstanding and organized a week-long community “education” event to set the record straight. Though many citizens boycotted the event, Rockwool proudly held forth under the company’s red logo and the overarching theme that it wanted to be “a good neighbor.” Summoning the Danish value of social engagement, Rockwool offered to become active in the community and open its heart – and checkbook – to local causes.
All the while, Rockwool’s eager public greeters reminded visitors that damaging the environment ran contrary to its corporate values. They claimed that the toxins emitted from their smokestacks would fall far below the EPA-mandated limits. A series of crude bar charts displayed nearby were meant to settle the point with science.
But the science, later shown to be based on dubious data, comforted few. “Let’s say hypothetically, the pollutants represent sludge,” a concerned citizen asked one of the greeters during the event. “What you’re telling me is you have a legal right to dump 10 tons of sludge in my backyard, and I should be happy that you’re only going to dump two tons of the stuff on my rose bushes. I don’t want any sludge in my backyard.”
Getting nowhere fast with these socially responsible West Virginians, Rockwool officials retreated to their creative friends in local government for help in getting the final county approvals and ramming through their building permit. Those friends are deeply conservative and adamantly pro-business. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, except most are also staunch deniers of man-made climate change. It’s set up this absurd dynamic: Rockwool, the self-proclaimed Green company, has turned to climate deniers to serve as its colorful, sometimes fact-mauling henchmen to break up a Green protest against its polluting factory.
The pro-Rockwool recriminations helped to peel off a little more support. But not nearly enough to get local leaders to cast their lots en masse with this-now shocking giveaway of rezoned land. That’s when, according to many, Rockwool flipped a neoliberal switch and showed its true colors. Rockwool’s lawyers vowed to sue the county for a backbreaking $100 million. From Rockwool’s perspective, promises had been made. It was time for those promises to be fulfilled.
Though the lawsuit has, at least for now, been a calculated bluff, Rockwool hasn’t budged on getting its factory. The company also has written off the community backlash as powered by misinformation and an unhealthy American distrust in government. Their local pro-business friends have seconded those dismissive emotions. Some have claimed falsely the “agitators” are shipped in from out of state. Others contend falsely they are locals duped by left-wing interest groups, and, most recently, pawns of a right-wing Koch Brothers conspiracy.
Those resisting Rockwool contend that this multi-national giant can’t have it both ways. If it’s truly a low-carbon “Green” entity, Rockwool can’t continue pushing hush-hush deals to set up shop in poor American states with exploitable environmental laws. (Rockwool’s first American factory is in Mississippi.) It is Rockwool’s choice to decide whether its brand and corporate integrity is more important to it than a stunningly low-cost, carbon-powered factory.
The Rockwool resisters have already filed several lawsuits, with more promised, to contest the legality of the Rockwool’s stunning deal. And that’s where things stand at the moment. Grassroots David vs. Corporate Goliath.
And here’s where a few morals enter this tangled story. First and foremost, international companies and their high-powered consultants must understand the American political chessboard before doing business here. Rockwool reported considering 50 possible factory sites in 10 states. Jefferson County, though well situated as a distribution point along the Atlantic Seaboard, was an outlandish choice, and the proof is in the protest. As noted, Jefferson County is relatively wealthy. It needs heavy industry, to quote my mother, like it needs a hole in the head.
Rockwool’s odd counterargument has been to channel the traditional Danish value of social responsibility. Rockwool knows what’s best for Jefferson County. “So what we have is that we are moving into a county with 56,000 people,” Rockwool’s CEO Jens Birgersson, a Swede, told an analyst during a recent quarterly conference call. “There are more than 5,000 people there that really, really needs [sic] jobs in our factory. They really need it.” Unmentioned is that one less-affluent county over, the new Proctor & Gamble plant buses in some of its workers. Not enough locals to fill the jobs.
Rockwool also needs to come to grips with an inconvenient truth: the backlash against it is totally logical. In August 2017, as Rockwool negotiated to sign its MOU, big economic news was breaking across the region. The Appalachian Oil & Natural Gas Research Consortium had released a comprehensive report to transform Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia into the nation’s natural gas hub. The report, which already had overwhelming political support in Charleston and Washington, called for the establishment of the Appalachian Storage and Service Hub. It would greatly expand hydraulic fracturing throughout the region and establish a network of “cracker” facilities that churn out cheap plastic from a ubiquitous chemical byproduct of the gas extraction process.
This is significant because local and state officials told Rockwool that they could run a gas line to the site of its new factory that would help power its ovens. The so-called Rockwool extension would spoke from a planned, though still hotly contested, main pipeline transporting gas from hydraulic fracturing in western Pennsylvania. In other words, Rockwool’s “Green” make-the-world-a-better-place would be powered not only by dirty coal but fracked gas that its environmental friends decry.
If the Rockwool extension is approved, the pipeline will also have a far more dubious economic multiplier effect. And this is where the local development authority seems to have had an ulterior movement in wooing Rockwool.
A video was discovered of a county hearing that took place just as the secretive veil of Project Shuttle lifted. John Riesenweber, the head of the county’s development authority, sought approval for, what else, a tax break for Rockwool. “The site is going to be teed up,” said Reisenweber, referring not only to the gas line but the proposed water and sewer lines that would be run out to the factory. “We won’t have to go through all these machinations again the next time we have a user that needs a space similar what [Rockwool] is using.”
Another user? Without any advance public discussion or referendums, Reisenweber and a group of volunteers on the Jefferson County Development Authority had unilaterally “teed up” the county to be heavily industrialized. It wasn’t that Reisenweber and the others didn’t care about the county. They’d simply gotten way ahead of the pack and, without a referendum on industrializing the county, made their collective will the unpopular new way.
This unpopular new way will, in all practicality, expand Rockwool’s carbon footprint to include all polluters that follow in its wake. This potentially comes to quite a planetary choke. That’s also why resisters suggest that, if Rockwool must have another factory, it should make a conscious choice to set up where the infrastructure already exists.
Better yet, don’t pollute at all. Some suggest that Danish companies need to commit to a corporate code of conduct overseas in line with the country’s stated goal of cutting its carbon emissions to the bone. To do otherwise is hypocritical and profoundly counterproductive to protecting human life in Copenhagen and throughout the planet.
But Rockwool persists. “But our main focus is to build the plants,” said Birgersson, though “those plants” could be tied up in court for years. “And we have done the groundworks [sic], now we are starting to pile. Soon, we start to pour concrete and we build it. And then over time, when we start to hire people, we’ll start to pay taxes and we’ll start to contribute to this community.”
Before Billy Cross teamed with Bob Dylan, he was the musical director of the national touring group that performed the controversial Broadway musical Hair, remembered for the now-famous refrain, “Let the sunshine in, let the sunshine in.” Fifty years later in a small county in West Virginia, concerned citizens are repeating the refrain in the name of social responsibility. They want to let the sunshine in on secretive deal that’s bad for their county, the state, and the planet.
They also welcome the day that they can join with Rockwool officials in singing, “We all pay our taxes/We all pay our taxes/Denmark rocks every day of the year. “