Environmental justice for Cumberland County, by Benjamin Chavis Jr.

7/4/2024, 6 p.m.
Cumberland County stands on the edge of an environmental catastrophe. An hour west of Richmond, the historic town of Cumberland …

Cumberland County stands on the edge of an environmental catastrophe. An hour west of Richmond, the historic town of Cumberland is set to become the site of the proposed Green Ridge Disposal and Recycling Facility. This 1,200 - acre mega-landfill plans to operate nearly 24/7, releasing harmful pollutants into the air, contaminating the community’s drinking water and depreciating the surrounding residential land value each day.

The Virginia Environmental Justice Act of 2020 enshrines the principles of environmental justice and fair treatment into law. This act requires “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, income, faith, or disability, in the development, implementation, or enforcement of environmental laws and policies.” It ensures that “no group bears a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences from industrial, governmental, or commercial operations.”

The Green Ridge landfill proposal very clearly contrasts with these principles. Cumberland County, with its high percentage of underserved communities and a poverty rate exceeding the national average by more than 5.5 percent, faces a disproportionate burden from this landfill. This is a clear case of environmental racism, where marginalized communities are subjected to harmful environmental practices.

The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has conditionally approved the initial phase of this landfill project, despite the obvious health and economic implications it will bring to the residents of Cumberland County. However, our community is hopeful that the next phase of this approval process will shed light on yet another reason that this mega-landfill cannot and must not be approved — the historic and beloved Pine Grove School.

The Pine Grove School was built in 1917 as one of the thousands of “Rosenwald Schools” constructed in the South during the Jim Crow era. Created to improve educational opportunities for African American children, schools like Pine Grove Elementary were a safe haven. These schools still remain a testament to the perseverance of communities like Cumberland through some of the worst times our nation has faced.

Groups like the AMMD Pine Grove Project have even taken to highlighting the significance of Rosenwald Schools like Pine Grove. They released a documentary titled “Pine Grove: More Than a School” that showcases the historical importance of these schools.

Now, more than a decade later, Pine Grove’s perseverance is being put to the test again. The Green Ridge Disposal and Recycling Facility is set to be placed in the backyard of this landmark. The 1,200-acre landfill will only tarnish the legacy of this significant site, reducing it to the garbage and rubble surrounding it. And while the mega-landfill is not only a slap in the face to the community that cherishes it, the placement of this landfill is also illegal. Under Virginia Code § 15.2-2306, building any structure that would mar the historic value of landmarks is strictly prohibited. While the DEQ has already conditionally approved the landfill project, they are now required to meet with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to ensure compliance.

With the host agreement between Green Ridge and Cumberland County set to expire in July 2025, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources’ decision here will affect this community for generations.

Local advocates and residents have expressed their concerns, hoping community and state officials will do something to prevent this environmental catastrophe. Last month, the citizens of Cumberland, along with environmental racism activists, held an advocacy day in Richmond, hoping to rally support for both Cumberland County and the Pine Grove School. After speaking face-to-face with many sympathetic legislators, we can only hope that action will follow their apologies and promises.

I have fought for environmental justice since the 1980s and am disappointed that we are still fighting the same battle almost 50 years later, but my passion and determination have not dissipated. Over the last three years, I have had the honor to fight with leaders like AMMDPresident Sonja Branch Wilson and AMMD President Emeritus Muriel Miller Branch and we will not stop until the Pine Grove mega-landfill is rejected.

The residents of Cumberland deserve clean water, a safe environment and a future free from the shadows of environmental injustice. Our state leaders have a moral and legal obligation to ensure that the principles of environmental justice are upheld and the Pine Grove School is protected. In order to do so, it is imperative that the Green Ridge landfill proposal be unequivocally rejected.

The writer is the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA).