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Opinion In Virginia, the fight for environmental justice continues

The Pine Grove School in Cumberland County, Va., is on the 2021 list of the 11 most endangered historic places. (Preservation Virginia) (Preservation Virginia)

Mariah Davis is the acting director of the Choose Clean Water Coalition. Queen Zakia Shabazz is the coordinator of the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative.

A proposed mega-landfill across the street from the Pine Grove Elementary School in Virginia’s Cumberland County would accept up to 5,000 tons of waste every day, rising hundreds of feet high. Operating 24 hours a day for much of the week, the Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility would accept trash from within a 500-mile radius.

This landfill, if sited, would present long-lasting and far-reaching consequences to the residents of Cumberland County, more than 30 percent of whom are Black. Hundreds of daily tractor-trailer trips on local roads and noxious odors emitting from the landfill will threaten air quality. Leaks from landfills present unacceptable risks to local streams and wetlands, a prospect made particularly alarming considering the large percentage of residents who rely on private wells for their drinking water. Collectively, the cumulative impacts of these consequences and many others endanger public health and the cultural heritage of this historic African American community. This threat, combined with the historic nature of the Pine Grove Elementary School, which educated African American children in the South at the height of the Jim Crow era, led the National Trust for Historic Preservation to recently name the Pine Grove School among the 11 most endangered places of 2021.

We can’t help but ask whether a landfill such as this will ever threaten a historic site associated with the history of White America? In Virginia, does Jamestown or Mount Vernon need to worry about an incoming towering heap of trash?

With our nation’s recent racial reckoning, blatant environmental discrimination such as the proposed Green Ridge landfill is receiving more scrutiny. And legislators are starting to take notice. Last year, Virginia took a big step forward by passing the Virginia Environmental Justice Act, which makes it the policy of the commonwealth to promote environmental justice, defined as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of every person, regardless of race, color, national origin, income, faith, or disability, regarding the development, implementation, or enforcement of any environmental law, regulation, or policy.”

On the federal level, the recently introduced Environmental Justice for All Act would take even further action to address environmental disparities in vulnerable communities throughout the country. Led in part by Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), the comprehensive legislation would update our bedrock environmental laws and policies to address environmental justice, equity and human health impacts. One such update is to amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination based on disparate impact, and permitting private citizens, residents and organizations to take legal action when faced with discrimination. Beyond protecting communities of color from suffering disproportionate pollution impacts, the Environmental Justice for All Act also would take steps to improve equitable access to parks and public lands.

The coronavirus pandemic has further lifted the veil on systemic inequities in our society, particularly as they pertains to race. Look no further than the disparities in access to quality health care, with death rates much higher among Black and Brown communities. As our nation wrestles with the vestiges of our racial history, with the ugly warts of slavery and Jim Crow, we must seize the moment to establish safeguards that ensure all people have the right to clean air, water and land.

One piece of legislation will not heal centuries of discrimination. Even if the Environmental Justice for All Act is passed, countless communities will continue to suffer from pollution. But we can no longer accept corporate executives and government officials wielding the power to wreak environmental harm on disenfranchised people who don’t have the tools and resources to resist.

The work for environmental justice takes on an increased sense of urgency when considering what’s right in our backyard. Living near the Chesapeake Bay is a privilege that comes with the responsibility to steward this national treasure. We recognize not only the need to protect and restore the bay and its rivers and streams but also the critical work to defend and protect communities of color from bearing the burden of pollution throughout the watershed.

Unfortunately, the Green Ridge landfill is just one case of environmental injustice among many. The Environmental Justice for All Act is not a silver bullet to solve this issue throughout Virginia and the country. But, with this legislation and a growing movement for equity, we are hopeful we will begin to steward our precious natural resources to fairly serve all Americans.

Read more:

Peter Galuszka: Dominion Energy is embracing offshore wind. It’ll be a break for the Chesapeake Bay region.

Bernie Fowler and William C. Baker: Without swift action, the Chesapeake Bay will decline even further into national disgrace

Andrew Macdonald: Urban stream renewal is not helping the Chesapeake Bay

Letters to the Editor: To help save the Chesapeake, we need to restore our streams

Letters to the Editor: There’s a sustainability plan for the Chesapeake Bay