A looming environmental injustice

A looming environmental injustice
Allison Silberberg (Courtesy Photo)

By Allison Silberberg

Imagine you live in a small, historic community with about 10,000 residents. Now imagine a mega-landfill the size of more than 900 football fields is proposed to be built
in your community.

There is such a proposal under serious consideration on 1,200 acres in Cumberland County, which is about 60 miles west of Richmond. The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is considering this proposed project, known as the Green Ridge Landfill.

Northern Virginia, and Alexandria in particular, are committed to equity and environmental justice. Our communities also need to stand up for other parts of the Commonwealth of Virginia, especially when people’s air quality and drinking water are at risk.

Why am I opposed to this mega-landfill, and why do I think Virginians should be against the construction? Because it is a matter of environmental justice.

Indeed, the project would put a landfill in a community that is a historically impoverished region – with nearly 20% of the residents living below the poverty line. In my view, this directly violates The Virginia Environmental Justice Act of 2020, which 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.”

Is it a coincidence that Cumberland County also has a significant Black population? A recent op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch noted that the planned site is close to a Virginia treasure and symbol of racial justice. Here is an excerpt from the Times Dispatch:

“In 1917, Booker T. Washington and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald set out to create schools that were designed to educate Black children, when no one else would take them in. … One of those schools, Pine Grove Elementary School, is located in Cumberland County. And the owners of the Green Ridge mega-landfill are planning to build the site right across the street …”

It’s unconscionable that a massive landfill will be located directly across the street from a historic elementary school built by civil rights icons.

In May 2020, Preservation Virginia included Pine Grove Elementary School as one of Virginia’s most endangered historic places. The school has been recognized on the Virginia Landmark Register and National Register of Historic Places. Preservation Virginia’s website states that the history of the Pine Grove community centers around the school.

Preservation Virginia also stated on their site that this rural community outside of Richmond is “under threat from a proposed 1,200-acre landfill that, if approved, will fundamentally change the historic character of this 100-year-old community and put residents at risk from major environmental hazards. The threat to the Pine Grove School Community is symbolic of the continual and systematic failure to adequately protect Virginia’s African American historic sites.”

A recent column on the matter in The Washington Post compared the situation to Flint, Michigan, where a Black community was poisoned by unsafe drinking water. As the Post piece pointed out, the proposed mega-landfill could also pollute Cumberland County’s drinking water.

Of course, the community needs jobs and tax revenue. But under the hollow promise of economic development, the Pine Grove School community shouldn’t be forced to accept a polluting mega-landfill that could degrade their quality of life, health, environment and drinking water. In the long run, the mega-landfill will not only harm the residents’ health and well-being, it will also irreparably damage the county’s historic site, property values and ability to attract more desirable outside investment. I urge my fellow Alexandrians to reach out to our state legislators and VDEQ to voice their opposition to this misguided landfill proposal. Speaking out is the right thing to do. 

The writer is a former mayor of Alexandria.