by Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON – In a legislative race that already has the potential to be the most volatile in the state this fall, Berkeley County’s Democrat State Senator John Unger has already announced plans to introduce legislation in 2019. The problem with that announcement, made today in a press release, is that Unger is in what many consider a difficult fight for re-election in November.
If Republican Delegate Michael Folk, who now represents the 63rd Delegate District, defeats Unger, the incumbent will not be around to introduce any legislation in 2019.
Today’s press release goes a long way toward underscoring the differences between Unger and Folk. Unger’s announcement says he will introduce a bill that will require public meetings in the area impacted by any air or water permits.
Those issues have come even further to the front since the election of Republican President Donald Trump in 2016. Trump pledged to ease what he and conservative Republicans call “unnecessary” regulations. Many Obama-era rules have been relaxed since Trump took office.
Unger admits existing rules were followed in granting Rockwool, Inc. a clean air permit recently. Currently, he acknowledges, a public hearing in the impacted area is not required.
But Unger says his bill would require such a hearing.
“We’ve had a lot of concerns expressed with the Clean Air Permit given to Rockwool, Inc,” Senator Unger said. “Though the public comment period ran legally, a meeting was not held in the community that will be affected. I want to make sure that in the future, our communities have a chance to give input to the processes that directly affect them.”
The Rockwool stone insulation manufacturing facility is expected to bring 150 jobs to Jefferson County, but many residents have raised health and safety concerns since its location is near three schools. The Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Air Quality policy regarding permits for projects like the Rockwool plant requires the DAQ to publicly issue a notice of “intent to issue a permit,” followed by a 45-day public comment period. A physical meeting is allowed, but not required.
Though the permitting and public comment period complied with DEP policy, some citizens are incensed that there was no public meeting in Jefferson County regarding the Clean Air Permit.
“We need to do better,” said Unger. “People who will be affected by development should be able to learn about it, express concerns, and get their questions answered. There’s absolutely no way Rockwool’s air quality permits should have been approved without a public meeting being held in our community. If the citizens’ voices had been heard, I believe these permits would not have been approved at all. That’s why I’m going to introduce this legislation.”
It was unclear, since Unger might not be a state senator in 2019, how he could assure introduction of his bill. The senator is also pastor of three Eastern Panhandle churches but one political commenter said, “I don’t think any of the three are Presbyterian, although he must believe he is predestined to be re-elected.”
Folk is attempting to make the jump from House to Senate after a thusfar controversial career in the legislature. It was he was once Tweeted, “Hillary Clinton, you should be tried for treason, murder and crimes against the U.S. constitution, then hung on the Mall in Washington, D/C.” He was also an outspoken opponent of the road bond issue supported and passed by Republican Governor Jim Justice.