Cumberland resident Bruce Allen expresses his opposition to a plan to construct a landfill near the Cumberland–Powhatan border at a meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors July 10, 2018, while District 5 Supervisor Parker Wheeler and Chairman Kevin Ingle listen. Photo by Sarah Vogelsong.

CUMBERLAND COUNTY —  A Virginia political issue largely consigned to the dust heap of history in the late 1990s resurfaced this June when the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors voted to allow plans to go forward for the construction of a mega-landfill just a mile from the Cumberland–Powhatan border.

If the company behind the project, County Waste of Virginia, succeeds in obtaining a permit from the state Department of Environmental Quality to operate the proposed Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility, Virginia will become home to an eighth mega-landfill, meaning a facility can accept more than 3,500 tons of waste per day.

The last new Virginia landfill of that size opened in 1997, according to state records.

Cumberland residents, like those before them who live near Virginia’s seven other mega-landfill communities, appear largely opposed to the venture, describing themselves as “blindsided” by a project that was approved by county leaders a mere 35 days after it was made public.

Their leaders themselves are split on the issue, with Green Ridge obtaining a narrow approval in a 3–2 vote after a marathon meeting that stretched into the early hours of June 29.

“It’s just really, really hard to turn down a business that’s offering the kind of money flow they are,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Kevin Ingle. “But, there’s always a cost to pay in making money.”

‘WE’RE A POOR COUNTY’

Cumberland County might seem at first glance an unlikely battleground. The picture of bucolic Virginia life, the county was once a major agricultural producer, and today, its distance from both interstates and population centers —the closest town is Farmville, 0.7 square miles of which formally belong to Cumberland— preserves that rural image.

Nevertheless, it is those very qualities that make Cumberland a prime candidate for a landfill in the eyes of waste management companies, with the latest proposal from County Waste of Virginia being the third put forth by private companies in 30 years.

The first, from Browning-Ferris Industries, was reluctantly green-lit by the county in the late 1980s but abandoned in 1992 due to profitability concerns. The second, from Allied Waste, won county approval in 2006 but wasn’t built.

It is now owned by Republic Services, though county officials remain close-lipped about its status.  Agenda items for the supervisors’ closed sessions hint at ongoing litigation.

The most recent plan from County Waste of Virginia would construct a 500- to 650-acre landfill, recycling center and gas-energy conversion plant on a 1,200-acre site on Cumberland’s far eastern edge. If the plans receive DEQ approval, the site could accept up to 5,000 tons of trash per day from County Waste’s 500-mile-radius service area and could lead to the relocation of two state roads.

In return, Cumberland would get two things that it sorely needs: money and jobs.

With a poverty rate of 18 percent and few jobs or skilled workers, the county has struggled to attract businesses, even a grocery store. The budget for the 2019 fiscal year that started in June showed a $500,000 deficit, of which $275,000 was due to increases in trash-disposal costs.

“Those are the limitations that we have as a county,” said District 1 Supervisor William Osl, a vocal supporter of the Green Ridge project. “We need to attract businesses that don’t need much infrastructure and don’t need a skilled workforce.”

District 4 Supervisor David Meinhard, who also supported the landfill, put it more simply: “We’re a poor county. I don’t think our citizens can stand the kind of increase in taxes that the revenue from this landfill is going to bring.”

Those revenues promise to be substantial: Green Ridge has projected that it will pay Cumberland $1.3 to $2.7 million in host fees annually, invest $150 million in construction over the site’s 35-year lifespan and provide at least 30 jobs, with Cumberland County residents given preference during the hiring process.

‘IT’S GOING TO IMPACT EVERYTHING’

For many residents of both Cumberland and Powhatan, however, the money can’t compensate for the losses and risks that they believe will accompany the landfill.

“It’s going to impact everything,” said Ragnar Gunnarsson, whose property on Alder Lane, a group of parcels he called “my little private kingdom and piece of heaven,” lies within about 500 feet of the proposed landfill.

The opposition expressed during public hearings were what Green Ridge site manager Jay Zook called “pretty typical,” centering on groundwater contamination, odors, the destruction of wetlands, the loss of property values, liability, types of waste permitted at the facility and traffic.

Signs opposing the construction of a landfill near the Cumberland–Powhatan border cover the vehicle of an opponent at a meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors on July 10, 2018. Photo by Sarah Vogelsong.

The last one has provoked special concern from Powhatan residents. One of County Waste of Virginia’s selling points to Cumberland officials on the Green Ridge facility was that more than 85 percent of the traffic associated with the landfill would come from the east — that is, through Powhatan County, on a stretch of U.S. Route 60 with no passing lanes, shoulders or street lamps.

“I think it’s an infringement on our rights that another county can go in and put something on our border, and we have no say,” said Laurie Halligan, a Powhatan resident whose home sits a half-mile from the county line.

Cumberland did not notify Powhatan of the project in advance, Osl, Meinhard and Ingle all confirmed.

“Route 60 is more than capable of handling the traffic we’re talking about,” Osl said, while County Waste of Virginia Senior Vice President Jerry Cifor noted in an email that “that’s both the benefit and consequence of having a major state route running through a county.”

“I reckon they figured — and this is coming from the company side of it — 60 is a road of commerce,” Ingle  said. “And one locality should not be dictating to another, you know, what type of commerce they can have in their county.”

Still, he added, “I don’t believe in that. I believe notification should have been, could have been a very key point.”

A ‘DONE DEAL FROM THE BEGINNING?’

Notification, in fact, has proved perhaps the thorniest issue in the Green Ridge debate, with many residents saying they haven’t been given enough information on the project or enough time to come to grips with it.

“Everyone had the sense it was a done deal from the beginning,” said Cumberland resident Janet Hable.

“This is just moving way too fast,” said Jacqueline James, a resident of Pinegrove Road near the proposed site. “What’s the big rush? Cumberland has been down and out for years, and rushing this without thinking about it is not going to change a darn thing.”

Both the rapid timeline of the project’s approval and the number of unresolved questions about how the facility will operate distinguish Green Ridge from earlier mega-landfill projects.

All seven of its predecessors, in Amelia, Brunswick, Charles City, Gloucester, King and Queen, King George and Sussex counties, began operations in the 1990s in the wake of new federal and state regulations that required all landfills to be brought up to more stringent standards by Jan. 1, 1994, or else close down.

The issue of where trash would go once the public dumps that many localities could not afford to upgrade were shuttered was debated not only locally, but statewide. The approval of the nearby Amelia mega-landfill, for instance, followed nine months of meetings and negotiations, with the final conditional-use permit containing 135 stipulations on how the facility could operate.

By contrast, the Green Ridge project is driven more by business concerns than by a public lack of waste-disposal options.

The Amelia landfill, about 25 miles from the Cumberland site, was determined by DEQ in a  June 2018 solid waste report to have just shy of 150 years of capacity remaining. The same report found that Virginia facilities took in about 21.6 million tons of waste in 2017, mostly from in-state sources, a decrease of 2 percent from 2016.

Cifor, the company’s senior vice president, called the Cumberland landfill “an opportunity to allow County Waste of Virginia to be completely self-sufficient, allowing the company to no longer rely on using competitors’ landfills to support their trash-collection business.”

That outcome, he indicated, would also benefit the public by promoting competition and driving down fees for depositing waste at other landfills.

While residents had 35 days to consider the company’s proposal, talks between the company and the county have been ongoing for months. Cifor said County Waste of Virginia had reached out to Cumberland County in late spring 2016.

Ingle, however, said that he had not been aware of the project until around December 2017, and Osl said he hadn’t been involved until January 2018. Vivian Seay Giles, the county attorney and administrator, said she was “not at liberty to answer” questions about when the project was brought before the county.

But while the rapidity of the approval has dismayed Green Ridge’s opponents, some supervisors saw it as just part of doing business.

“When a business comes into Cumberland County and says, ‘We’re interested in Cumberland County,’ we don’t typically get the opportunity to say, ‘Come back to us next year,’” Osl said.

Ingle said that the county had followed the schedule requested by County Waste of Virginia, which was “an attempt to get it done right away if everybody was receptive to it.”

“They would actually sit down and plan to try to make it so it would hit, hit, hit, hit on dates so that everything would stay legal and knowing there were probably going to be some holdups on the way,” he said.

‘TOO MANY QUESTIONS’

Residents were annoyed that the county advanced the project before resolving key details of how the landfill would operate—issues that supervisors say will be settled in negotiations over the host agreement.

“There’s just too many questions,” said Nancy Thompson of Cumberland. “Too much is vague in there. It leaves it open to their interpretation.”

Ingle said that the host agreement would be discussed in open session at the Board of Supervisors’ next meeting, although he also said that the supervisors did “talk about it in closed session to find out what the other board members are feeling.”

“We kind of need a small area to be able to talk through this, and then whatever we come to a consensus of what this group thinks need to come out, then that’s when we would bring it out to the open session,” he said.

Virginia law outlines dozens of specific instances in which public bodies can hold closed meetings. It is not clear which exemption such discussions would fall under.

As the plans for Green Ridge move forward, opponents are continuing to fight. A host agreement with the county must be signed before the company can apply to DEQ for a solid waste permit, offering some a sliver of hope that the project will not advance.

A sign opposing a proposed Cumberland County landfill was placed U.S. Route 60 in Cumberland County. Photo by Robert Zullo.

A petition to add the question of whether the Board of Supervisors could approve the landfill without holding a referendum on the matter received 1,000 signatures and was filed in Cumberland County Circuit Court in mid-June but has yet to go before a judge.

“If they do everything by the book, it’s very hard to stop something like this,” Gunnarsson said.

His partner, Christal Schools, in a passionate speech at the July 10 meeting, took a more defiant stance: “There will be no landfill,” she told the supervisors.

To Hable, who lived in Cumberland during the 2006 landfill debate, the situation was just another chapter in an old story.

“We’re right back to the same thing again,” she said. “We’re fighting the same battle.”