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Cumberland Residents Cross Racial Lines To Fight Third Attempt At A Landfill

Pine Grove School
The Pine Grove School is a former Rosenwald School and its neighbor could be a mega landfill. Ian Stewart/WCVE

In Clinton, Virginia, just off Route 60 sits the Pine Grove school. Surrounded by large pine trees and open spaces, this former  Rosenwald school in Cumberland County is seeing new life. On a recent Sunday, about two dozen people gathered there for a weekly meeting of the Pine Grove Project. Their mission is two-pronged: restore the 100-year old African American school and fight the landfill that may rise up across the street.

And that’s what this is all about,” said Muriel Branch, leader of the project. “We say building community and that’s preserving history, building community. And that’s what we do.”

After the Cumberland Board of Supervisors voted to approve 1,200 acres of farmland as the site of a landfill, the Pine Grove Project started meeting weekly.

“If you believe, that you don’t want people poisoning your water, your air, your grandchildren’s water, your grandchildren's air -- no. The answer is no,” Branch told the group. “And, whatever we have to do -- speak. We’ve got to speak up for ourselves.”

Currently, there are 70 landfills in Virginia, according to the  Environmental Protection Agency.

At least seven are what’s known as “ mega-landfills” or sites that accept 3,500 tons or more of municipal solid waste per day.

These seven mega-landfills are not too far from the Richmond area. The orange marker indicates the location of the proposed Cumberland facility.

The site in Cumberland would also be a mega-landfill, accepting between 3,500-5,000 tons of waste per day. It’s called  Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal and it would be the first landfill for County Waste, a New York-based company. It would operate six days a week, including 24-hours-a-day Tuesday through Friday. Spokesperson Jay Smith says they're planning two landfills on the property covering over 650 acres.

“However, we own over 1,200 acres,” said Smith. “So that leaves hundreds of acres of buffers around these cells. That would be trees, buffer area, and some ancillary things like drop-off for local residents, a weigh station, things like that.”

Smith said there is a need for more landfills in the state due to current ones reaching capacity.

He adds that Green Ridge is different from other landfills because they won’t accept sheetrock or sludge.

“Sludge and sheetrock are the two main sources of odor issues with landfill. So we have decided to take that off the table completely and not accept those at this facility,” he said.

Green Ridge will accept nonhazardous solid waste, including furniture, clothing, bottles, food scraps, newspapers, appliances, paint and batteries.

Infogram: How Long Will These Landfills Stay Open?

“There are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation out there,” said Smith. “And we feel like the more people understand and know the science behind developing a landfill, the more comfortable they’d become with the project.”

Residents are also concerned the landfill could reach 250 feet in height. Green Ridge states that they do not know exactly how tall the landfill could be since the final design is not complete. Smith adds that people won’t be able to see it due to buffers.

In their zoning application to the county, Green Ridge stated they will provide 30-35 jobs that will average at least $60,000 a year plus benefits. Smith said that the type of jobs needed would be mechanics, equipment operators, CDL truck drivers, and management. Greenridge estimates that host fees will generate $1.3 to $2.7 million annually, almost a 10% increase in revenue for Cumberland County. The company will also pay the county 10% of landfill gas royalties. That’s when methane gas is harvested and sold for energy production. But University of Richmond Professor Mary Finley-Brook warns counties that the added revenue might not outweigh the risks.

“Until you see all the different expenses having to do more with the water systems, having to fix the roads, having to change all kinds of things that they weren’t counting on, then that tax money doesn’t go very far,” she said.

Finley-Brook is the Associate Professor of Geography, Environmental Studies, and Global Studies, and served on Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s Environmental Justice Council. She says the benefits from added tax revenues don’t trickle down to the communities.

“It doesn’t really help the local economy,” said Finley-Brook. “It doesn’t lift people out poverty and it doesn’t create healthy jobs. It spoils their environment., and it limits their options moving forward.”

Green Ridge estimates that the site will see up to 250 truckloads per day. Opponents say the number is misleading because it doesn’t account for return trips. Many of these tractor trailers would come off State Route 288 onto U.S. Route 60, through Powhattan into Cumberland. Green Ridge says the majority of the loads will arrive during off-peak hours to minimize traffic. Former Pine Grove student and longtime resident Cora Cook thinks that’s too many.

“The traffic gonna be heavy. They going to bring everything here,” she said. “Who knows what’s going to be in those trucks? ”

Besides tractor trailer trucks, Cook says she’s also concerned about odor.

And who wants to smell the dump? I don’t. I like to sit outdoor on my porch,” she said.

Cora Cook says with God on their side, the dump can't happen. (Photo: Ian Stewart/WCVE)

Green Ridge gave residents who live within 1 ½ miles of the proposed site about six months to  sign up for a program to compensate for some property value loss. Smith said that more than half of the approximately 50 eligible property owners have enrolled in the program. Green Ridge has purchased a couple of adjoining properties as well.

Professor Finley-Brook says even with financial support, it’s hard for low-income and elderly people to move after being rooted in one place for so long. Sixty-five year-old Cook is one example of this. She says she wants to stay in her home.

“When I pass away this is going to be my grandkids home. And whatever they want to do is up to them,” said Cook.

In an area where residents rely on well water, opponents are also concerned about their health. Keith Holly, who grows soybeans and corn on his 120 acre property, said one stream runs through his land and another runs along his property line.

“All landfills leak, to some extent,” he said. “This landfill is in exceptionally wet area.”

Green Ridge’s Smith said the lining that is used as a buffer between the trash and the earth should stop any leakage. He added that any polluted water from the site will be collected via a drainage system and transported to a wastewater plant.

This isn’t the first time Cumberland County has proposed a landfill. In a presentation by Green Ridge at a community meeting, they stated that a landfill was previously approved by the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors in 2006 and fully permitted by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. However, Allied, the company that was slated to build the project, pulled out after the market crashed in 2008, says Tim Kennell, a former member of the Board of Supervisors.

“I’m a Cumberland resident,” said Kennell. “Have been for over 30 years. Landfill issues keep coming up in this county. This is the third since I’ve lived here.”

Cumberland County has no garbage pick-up. Instead residents take their trash and recyclables to three convenience centers. Green Ridge says their facility would offer a fourth option. They also have pledged to help fund restoration of the Pine Grove school and donate $50,000 annually to fund environmental science and recreational programs for the County.

Construction of the landfill can’t begin until Green Ridge submits the final paperwork to the DEQ. The company, along with community groups, also hired specialists to survey the land after hunters discovered  unmarked gravesites last year.

“There are grave sites scattered throughout the area” said Keith Holly. “Most of them are marked -- if they’re marked at all are marked simply, stones or slates. Ah, there’s very few formal headstones.”

Holly said he’s discovered grave sites on his property. Because of this, Green Ridge has been conducting their own archeological investigations. Smith says they have identified some unmarked graves that will be preserved.  

Keith Holly thinks the Board of Supervisors and County Waste worked in secrecy to secure the deal. (Photo: Ian Stewart/WCVE)

“The good news is [the graves are] not in the fill area,” said Smith. “They’re not going to be moved. We’re going to create a buffer around them. That’s not where the landfill itself will be going. ”

Last year, the Cumberland Board of Supervisors voted 5 to 2 in favor of the host agreement for Green Ridge, despite the Planning Commission’s recommendation not to. Cumberland Board of Supervisors member David Meinhard, who voted in support, said the money should also reduce the current real estate tax rate by at least 15-cents.

One of the board members to vote against the agreement with Green Ridge, Lloyd Banks, declined an interview with WCVE.

In the County’s Solid Waste Management Program, which was amended last February, it states that the proposed facility conforms with the Solid Waste Plan, with the County’s Comprehensive Plan and with any future development plans.

But Cumberland resident Christal Schools sees a growing number of people who want to keep a landfill out of the county. Schools is chairperson of the  Cumberland County Landfill Alert (CCLA), which gathered about 3,000 signatures from people who oppose the landfill.

“It’s crazy how many people in this state don’t want this. And you think it’s just little Cumberland County, but there are so many people that are against this,” she said.

Schools said she’s heard from people in Warsaw, Henrico, Goochland and Powhattan who own land in the county who are opposed the to the landfill. CCLA has partnered with groups such as the Sierra Club and with the Virginia Environmental Justice Collaborative to fight the landfill. She says people who are fighting the landfill should realize that they still have power.

“They’re under the impression that as soon as the Board of Supervisors signed off that it’s a done deal -- well it’s not true,” she said. “And that’s what’s so frustrating -- is trying to get the word out. That it’s not done. ”

One unexpected outcome of the landfill is how it brought community members together, says 45-year-long resident Keith Holly.

“In the time I’ve been in the county, I’ve never seen cooperation between communities, racial communities and so forth as this project of Green Ridge has caused,” he said.

There are hurdles ahead for both Green Ridge and the community members who oppose the landfill. The company will file required paperwork after archaeological surveys are complete. And opponents say they’ll be waiting with letters of protest to send to state officials.

Ian M. Stewart previously was the transportation reporter and fill-in anchor for VPM News.
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