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There’s a lot at stake in this year’s elections. But it shouldn’t be about campaign ad wars and horse-race coverage.
So, Mountain State Spotlight reporters fanned out to four corners of the state, and asked you what’s on your mind at this crucial moment in our history.
This story is part of what we heard. Click here to read more.
RANSON, W.Va. — When Ed and Pam Langland moved to Jefferson County from their previous home in the D.C. suburbs, they were looking for a better quality of life.
It was the early 2000s, and the Langlands were drawn to the area for its open land, natural beauty and the local school system. They wanted their daughter to go to a school where she’d have room and space to play outside.
They found the perfect fit at North Jefferson Elementary School, across the street from an old apple orchard, a mile and a half down the road from the blue country house where they lived.
“We loved the area,” said Ed Langland.
But 15 years after the Langlands moved to West Virginia, the orchard that first attracted them to the region was sold. It’s now the site of an incoming industrial plant where a Danish manufacturing company that produces insulation — The Rockwool Group — is set to begin production in the coming year.
For Eastern Panhandle residents like the Langlands, the sale of the land to Rockwool sparked a wave of political activism. Residents have largely escaped the presence of heavy industry in their backyards, and often feel isolated from politics in the rest of West Virginia. They’re less than 15 miles from the Maryland and Virginia borders, but Charleston is five hours away.
A registered independent, Langland said he had largely stayed out of state politics, but that has changed since Rockwool came to town. He and his wife attended protests against the plant. They supplied their street with signs in opposition to the incoming project and joined a concerned citizens action group to remove Rockwool supporters from public office.
“I wasn’t a political person before,” said Langland. “I am now.”
He’s not the only one.
From farmland to factory
Velma Gutierrez lives in a white, single-story house on Granny Smith Lane. She bought the home in 2009.
The 68-year-old from Jefferson County had lived most of her life in densely packed housing that was near the Charles Town Pizza Hut where she worked.
When the opportunity came to move out into a more rural part of the county, down a dead-end gravel road where she’d have privacy, space to garden and room for her grandkids to play, she took it. Her only neighbor: the historic apple orchard on which her husband had previously worked. It was where she wanted to live out the rest of her life.
For more than 100 years, Jefferson Orchards was the site of a local produce farm, where workers harvested thousands of apples, peaches and nectarines each year. But as time passed, business grew quieter. In 2015, the orchard’s owner wound down operations. 400 acres of land went to auction.
The City of Ranson, where the farm was located, annexed the land and rezoned it for industrial use. In 2017 more than 100 acres were sold to The Rockwool Group to build its newest plant, the second of the company’s U.S. locations.
State officials said the company would bring 150 jobs and an exciting new economic opportunity to town. But it would also bring smokestacks that use up tons of resources and the risk of environmental hazards like polluted air, water and soil.
Jefferson County residents said the decision to turn farmland into a factory happened largely without the participation of the people who live near it.
“I didn’t know it was coming,” said Gutierrez.
Although two years of political negotiations ensued between 2015 and 2017 to determine the terms on which the plant would be allowed to operate, the public wasn’t privy to the conversations taking place. The company and state officials have pointed out that negotiations happened in public meetings that anyone could attend, but the project was referred to by a code name, “Project Shuttle”.
“Project Shuttle? So we’re getting a public bus system? Great,” said Langland, who lives a mile from Gutierrez, across a set of train tracks. “Wrong.”
By the time locals understood the circumstances of the sale, the industrial wheels were already in motion. But residents who opposed the project refused to go down without a fight.
“A lot of decisions were made behind the backs of the people who live here,” Langland said.
And so people rallied.
Jennifer King is a beekeeper. She used to have hives on the orchard where the factory moved in, and currently has an apiary less than a mile away. King said she didn’t pay attention to local politics before Rockwool.
“I was asleep. I was raising three children, I was running a business. I had my own life and I would hear things on TV now and again, but I had this feeling that local and state government didn’t impact me,” King said. “For most of my life I felt like my vote didn’t matter. That’s how I felt.”
But when Rockwool moved in, King became concerned about the environmental consequences the project might have for her bees, her drinking water and the land surrounding her home. The land in Jefferson County is susceptible to sinkholes, and since construction of the Rockwool plant began, several have opened on the site, according to reporting by local media outlets and The Washington Post, as well as a citation by state regulators.
Now, King said, she’s an activist. She’s part of a Facebook group called Concerned Citizens Against Rockwool, which has close to 10,000 members and sparked the formation of a nonprofit called Jefferson County Vision. She attends protests, monitors local meetings and has helped pursue litigation against Rockwool and the state in hope of suspending the project.
She’s also been motivated to get others in her community to think more about local government. She tries to start friendly conversations with people when she has the opportunity, even in line at the grocery store.
“In 2016, I voted for Trump. I’m not proud of that. But what I’m even less proud of is how I voted in local and state elections,” said King. “This woke me up, and now I feel like I need to wake everybody else up, too.”
Off to the polls
Following the arrival of Rockwool in 2017, local residents turned to the polls, vowing to fight to delay the project and vote out politicians who supported it.
In 2018, they largely succeeded in the latter.
Voting turnout in the Eastern Panhandle was the highest it’s been in the last decade, with 52% of registered voters participating in the general election in Jefferson County — up 11 percentage points from 2014. The turnout increased in the nearby panhandle counties of Berkeley and Morgan, too.
Two state delegates from Jefferson County, Democrats John Doyle and Sammi Brown, ousted Republican incumbents after running on platforms opposing the plant.
“Rockwool took over the election in Jefferson County,” Doyle told Herald Mail Media following the election in 2018. “Without Rockwool, this race was tied.”
Beyond the election, others involved in negotiations with Rockwool — both those who were for and against it — decided to leave office. In 2019, The Washington Post reported that more than half of the 21 members on the local economic development authority quit because of the project. And in May of that year, Charles Town Mayor Scott Rogers resigned, citing threats from people who supported the project.
A week before the next statewide election, the momentum continues.
King said she’s seen reaction across the community, not all in opposition to the incoming plant. Some neighbors welcome the project and the jobs they expect it will bring.
On the same street where dozens of signs are displayed with slogans like “Toxic Rockwool,” reelection signs are raised for Delegate Paul Espinosa. Espinosa, a Jefferson County Republican and majority whip in the House of Delegates, was hired by Rockwool to run public relations for the plant.
King said the conflict of interests between industry and politics in the state is one of the reasons she’s become so active.
“It takes a lot of time to follow local and state government, to decipher meeting notes and stay on top of everything that’s happening,” said King. “But once you take the time to look, you realize it’s not just this or that. It’s a broken system. And it’s wrong.”
But back on Granny Smith Lane, the issue remains of a simpler sort: it’s about quality of life.
The trees in Gutierrez’s yard are starting to lose their leaves. In the summer, the thick green provided a protective wall between her house and the property where the factory was under construction. But as the temperature lowered, the curtain of leaves dropped, unveiling machinery and the building where early next year, manufacturing is set to begin.
“I don’t care who does it, I just want somebody to do something,” said Gutierrez, standing in her front lawn, looking out toward the metal building. “I want our politicians to make this stop.”