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Opinion Youngkin can deliver the promise of environmental justice for underserved communities

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Feb. 15 in Richmond. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
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Robert “J.R.” Gurley is president of the Virginia chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation.

When Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) met with members of the Frederick Douglass Foundation to celebrate Black History Month, he told us, “Every Virginian deserves dignity and respect, the opportunity to pursue our dreams, and inclusion in the Virginia family.”

Toward this end, we look forward to working with the governor to make the promises of environmental justice a reality for underserved communities in our state.

Youngkin recognized February as a time to “honor the history and achievements of Black Americans,” and we will need his leadership to tackle the challenges and expand the opportunities before us.

More than 1 million people live in rural Virginia, yet often these communities’ opinions are overshadowed by profit-driven companies that seek to build on their untouched land. Why should the future economic viability of these communities be traded for just another corporate project?

The ongoing review of the proposed Green Ridge mega-landfill is the most recent example of environmental injustice for a rural Virginia community, and its outcome will have lasting consequences. As a native Virginian who has worked to ensure opportunity for all, I believe that rejecting this proposed mega-landfill would be a major step in closing the gaps and inequalities within our state.

The landfill is planned for Cumberland County, a historically poor and rural area whose population is more than 30 percent Black. The landfill threatens to deprive the local community of the economic stability and opportunities it sorely lacks. Multiple studies demonstrate the unintended, adverse consequences of a mega-landfill on a local economy, along with its obvious environmental implications, such as air and water pollutants. Most notably, the presence of a mega-landfill drives down the values of houses and other real estate assets in the vicinity. As a result, depreciation of real estate values will hinder Cumberland County’s economic ability to grow, attract new businesses and investments, and level the playing field with its neighboring communities.

The negative economic effects of the mega-landfill will have a disproportionate impact on Black communities, because of their historic disadvantages and lack of safety nets. Roughly 74 percent of Cumberland County residents own their homes, so declining land value would be felt far and wide and could have a generational impact on many families.

The mega-landfill plan blatantly ignores the socioeconomic and environmental implications it will have on Cumberland County and Virginia as a whole.

This is why the Frederick Douglass Foundation, together with the Healthcare Equality Network, is encouraging our state’s leaders to take action and cement themselves as beacons of hope for these overlooked communities.

Fortunately, there is an existing law that can help to delegitimize and reject the Green Ridge project. Passed in 2020, the Virginia Environmental Justice Act defines environmental justice 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.” However, the presence of this mega-landfill would disproportionately pollute essential necessities of the nearby Black communities, including access to clean water from their private wells. Clearly, the mega-landfill’s adverse and disproportionate effects on our underserved communities do not reflect the "fair treatment” envisioned by our state’s law.

Upholding the Virginia Environmental Justice Act and blocking this project will not only protect these vulnerable individuals from the physical and economic impacts of living near an unwanted landfill, but it also could be the first step in restoring these communities’ confidence in the state leadership that has neglected their health and prosperity for far too long. To demand Youngkin solve all of Virginia’s historic challenges of environmental and social justice would be unrealistic and counterproductive. However, by empowering those who are consistently overlooked and rejecting projects that are blatantly harmful to neighboring communities, we can set our state on the right path of tackling this deeply entrenched issue.

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