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Controversy over Rockwool plant rocks election

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — The election in Jefferson County may have been heavily influenced by a controversial insulation plant.

Rockwool is a wool insulation factory that has already broken ground at the site of a historic Jefferson County orchard and near three schools. It was originally seen as an economic driver, bringing as many as 150 jobs to the county, but some members of the community are concerned with the health impacts associated with the plant’s emissions as well as its impact on the environment.

Jefferson County incumbent Commissioner Jane Tabb had originally supported the new industry, but later said she had a change of heart after doing more research into the potential effects of the factory. Tabb was re-elected last night. Democrat Ralph Lorenzetti, a staunch Rockwool opponent, defeated incumbent Commissioner Peter Onozko.

The Rockwool controversy may have played a role in the ouster of incumbent 67th District Representative Riley Moore who was set to be named majority leader in the new legislature. He was defeated by John Doyle by less than 900 votes. Doyle came out strongly against Rockwool.

“I’ve lived in Jefferson County since 1946,” Doyle told MetroNews affiliate WEPM. “I have never seen an issue where opinion is so overwhelming on one side. I think that the wishes of the people of Jefferson County need to be honored.”

In the 65th, Incumbent Jill Upson was defeated by Democrat Sammi Brown. While on the campaign trail, Upson said most of the decisions that brought Rockwool to the county were out of the hands of lawmakers. Brown was vocally opposed to the plant and made it part of her campaign platform.

“Candidacy aside, this is extremely personal for me” Brown recently wrote on her campaign’s social media. “I grew up here. I know this community. I attended school here. In no way can I condone the actions made here by some to affect the many.”

“There’s a lot of turmoil right now,” Brown told WEPM election night after winning the 65th seat. “There’s a few issues that really divided the community. Regardless of where I may personally fall because of my value set, the most important thing for me is putting this community back together. There is no way to develop, there is no way to prosper if we aren’t working congruently toward that cause. I’m going to have to find a way to make that happen.”

Incumbent 16th District Senator John Unger was among those counted as anti-Rockwool.

“The thing that keeps questioning me is why was this done in a very covered-up way?” said Unger. “Or at least exposed to the public like it should have been. This is something that we should have been discussing at the very beginning. But it seemed like there was an advertisement about it and then all of a sudden they had the public hearing or if there was a hearing it was in Charleston and not here. The hearing needs to be here locally. It needs to be in the place in which the people are going to deal with the situation.”

Challenger and current 63rd District Delegate Michael Folk had said the process that brought Rockwool to the county deserved some scrutiny, but never came out as staunchly against the plant. The 16th District straddles Jefferson and Berkeley Counties.

“I had nothing to do with Rockwool,” said Folk in a separate interview. “I don’t think any legislator around here did. We saw it at the same time everyone else did when it came out in the news. If there’s a contract in hand and it’s a valid contract, you can’t pull back. I won’t wilt under pressure. It’s going to be based on facts and whether something’s legal or not legal. They say I’m for it…well, what got it passed and what got it here I’ve never voted for. So how can you say that?”

In that race, Unger defeated Folk by a margin of 54 to 46 percent in Jefferson County. In Berkeley County, however, Folk actually garnered more of the vote, 51 percent. When precincts from both counties were tallied, however, Unger was the victor, with 52 percent of the votes cast going to him.

It’s possible Rockwool may have affected the race for U.S. Senate in the Panhandle. During the debate between Morrisey and Manchin hosted by the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and in the days leading up to the election, both were asked to weigh in on Rockwool.

Manchin, who had attended the ground breaking for the plant, said he has since been made aware of the community’s concerns and wants to examine the process that brought the plant to Jefferson County and ensure diligent oversight by the DEP.

For his part, Morrisey said up to and including Election Day that he was still looking into the issue and didn’t want to weigh in until he had all the facts.

On election night, while Morrisey carried Berkeley County over Manchin by a ten percent margin, it was a different story in Jefferson County, where Morrisey makes his home. There, Manchin beat Morrisey by a 51 to 45 percent margin.

Bucking the trend of the night in West Virginia’s easternmost county was incumbent Republican Paul Espinosa, who retains his 66th delegate seat after a challenge from Dave Dinges by a 58 to 42 percent margin.

Story by WEPM’s Marsha Kavalek.

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