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Opinion Virginia’s Cumberland County shouldn’t be the next Flint, Michigan

The James River, shown above near Yogaville, Va., runs through the northern portion of Cumberland County, where a mega-landfill is proposed. (Timothy C. Wright for the Washington Post.)
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Robert “J.R.” Gurley is president of the Virginia chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation. Chuck Smith is a lawyer and former Marine from North Carolina.

Cumberland County, just an hour’s drive west of Richmond, is in a crisis that risks it becoming the next Flint, Mich. State regulators at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are in the initial stages of reviewing a proposal for the construction of an unnecessary mega-landfill, the Green Ridge Landfill. This project presents a very real danger to local residents. If approved, the mega-landfill would pollute the air, water sources and historic legacy of this community. It also would jeopardize the community’s economic longevity, as small businesses are less likely to hire local residents and prosper amid a mountain of trash.

As part of the review process, the DEQ held a public information meeting in Cumberland County in March to provide residents and community leaders a chance to voice their opinions about this mega-landfill. We joined the local leadership and local advocates — including the Agee Miller Mayo Dungy (AMMD) Pine Grove Project — and attended the meeting to express our concerns about the disproportionate effects this proposed project could have on the livelihoods of vulnerable communities in the area. These effects include causing the pollution of private water wells, worsening air quality and increasing accidents from increased oversize traffic, among other health-related consequences. The mega-landfill also poses a direct threat to the legacy and history of the community’s beloved Pine Grove Elementary school, a Rosenwald school. In other words, the residents of Cumberland County are worried whether this project upholds environmental justice, a concept that is enshrined as law of the commonwealth.

The Virginia Environmental Justice Act of 2020 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.” It also defines “fair treatment” as “the equitable consideration of all people whereby no group of people bears a disproportionate share of any negative environmental consequence resulting from an industrial, governmental, or commercial operation, program, or policy.”

It would be safe to say that the mega-landfill proposal and its potential local impacts do not respect the concepts of environmental justice or fair treatment as codified in our state’s statutes. If the Virginia Environmental Justice Act were to apply anywhere in Virginia, it would be Cumberland County, whose residents face disproportionate dangers from such a polluting project.

The Flint water crisis took hold in a predominantly low-income community and is a stark example of environmental injustice. As many will remember, in 2014, Flint residents started complaining of foul-smelling, murky tap water. A study found the community’s water had lead levels registering above the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). This is a level where the government is required to take action to correct the problem, at this point deemed “very serious.” Instead, it took Flint residents taking to the courts to finally receive the justice they deserved.

Similarly, Cumberland County, features one of the highest percentages of underserved communities in Virginia. The Census Bureau found the proportion of people living below the poverty line in Cumberland County, a historically impoverished and rural area, is more than 5.5 percent higher than the national average. One of the community’s gravest concerns is preserving the cleanliness of its private water wells. With a mega-landfill just hundreds of feet away, there would be varying levels of contamination to the community’s primary source of water. Residential and commercial water sources could be affected. The county must stand up for residents’ access to clean water.

The Virginia chapter of the Frederick Douglass Foundation is proudly partnering with AMMD and others to push back on the injustice happening in Cumberland County. Our elected officials must consider environmental justice as a key criterion when evaluating the Green Ridge mega-landfill during its technical review process. At the public meeting in March, DEQ officials stated that the technical review for the proposal will focus on “hydrogeology and geology of the site, seismic impact zones, VDOT adequacy, impacts to parks and recreation” and other environmental factors of the mega-landfill.

However, there was not enough emphasis on the human impact of the proposal and whether this project aligns with the definitions of “fair treatment” and “environmental justice” in the Virginia Environmental Justice Act. The technical review should not be a purely scientific process; it must recognize that there are lives of real people and communities at stake.

The Virginia Environmental Justice Act of 2020 offers the DEQ and the Youngkin administration a unique tool to protect one of the most vulnerable communities in Virginia. As emphasized in the law, fair treatment does not stop at public engagement. In the context of environmental justice, fair treatment must involve real policy decisions that expel harmful projects when needed. Virginia should not allow another Flint water crisis to occur. The residents of Cumberland County deserve better.

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