By Irène Mathieu, MD
As a pediatrician in Central Virginia, I see evidence of how environmental contamination can threaten children’s health, which is why I am opposing the Green Ridge mega-landfill that has been proposed in Cumberland County.
Every day in my clinic, I encounter children with severe asthma or babies who struggle to develop normally because of complications from premature births. The scientific evidence tells us that air and water pollution are contributing factors to these children’s problems, and that the burden from pollution is disproportionately borne by children of color and those living in poverty.
In Cumberland County, more than one-fifth of the population are children, nearly one-third are African-American, and three-fourths of children receive free and reduced lunch. The mega-landfill and surrounding facilities would occupy a 1,200-acre site. At least 500 of those acres would be dedicated to landfill disposal – equivalent to more than 375 football fields laid out next to each other. According to the trash-hauling company’s own estimates, the operation would take in between 7 million and 10 million pounds of trash each day.
Although landfill technology has improved in recent years, no landfill can completely eliminate the environmental risks that come with such massive collections of waste. Threats to Cumberland County families include groundwater contamination, harms to air quality from dust and methane released from the trash piles and dramatic surges in local highway traffic due to the use of trash trucks on neighboring roads six days a week. The company is seeking to run the landfill 24 hours per day Monday through Friday, and from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday.
The risks from this round-the-clock operation are compounded when we consider that all households in Cumberland County are dependent on well water. Shallow wells are susceptible to groundwater contamination, while deep wells are more susceptible to seismic activity. Either way, local drinking water will be at risk, especially when we consider that the proposal is for a so-called “mega-landfill,” meaning a large, regional site that can accommodate at least 3,500 tons of garbage per day.
The proposed landfill would receive trash from hundreds of miles away. This includes waste from Small Quantity Generators, an EPA designation that allows individuals and institutions to dispose of up to 220 pounds of hazardous solid waste in standard garbage streams. However when this is compounded across multiple locations and states, an untold total quantity of hazardous waste could be dumped in this single landfill.
It’s not only public health that is threatened by the mega-landfill. This corner of Cumberland County contains a burial ground with unmarked graves, which based on oral histories are likely the resting place of enslaved people whose descendants still live in the community. The mega-landfill would be located directly across the street from the historically significant Pine Grove School. Constructed in 1917, Pine Grove is a remarkable example of the nationally famous Rosenwald Schools built for African American students across the segregated South.
Local preservationists are currently in the process of listing Pine Grove School on the National Register of Historic Places because of its significance to Virginia’s civil rights and architectural history.
The proposed landfill would close off the road in front of the historic school, rendering community access to it nearly impossible. It is ironic that the removal of some monuments and memorials in this state is fiercely debated, while others are quickly condemned to be casualties of “progress.” Whose history do we value?
The health of Cumberland County’s children is at stake in more than one way. The impacts from air pollution and water contamination capture most of our attention, but I also worry about the self-worth of children who grow up with no access to their local history, the graves of their ancestors now a repository for trash. The disregard for their environment, both natural and historical, will have profound effects on children’s physical and mental health. Together these impacts send a powerful message about the worth and importance of the community and its children.
Local organization AMMD Pine Grove Project, founded by community members, has been fighting to stop the mega-landfill since it was first proposed. I urge you to join their efforts by contacting your state legislators to demand that, at the very least, Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement to evaluate the threats to Cumberland County’s environment, community health and historic resources. We also need to insist that Gov. Ralph Northam direct his newly created Council on Environmental Justice to investigate the Cumberland County mega-landfill as an urgent issue.
There are ample economic opportunities in Cumberland County for ecological and historical tourism, all of which can be developed while protecting the air our children breathe and the water they drink. We owe it to Cumberland County’s families to preserve these opportunities by saying “no” to the Green Ridge mega-landfill.
CLARIFICATION: This post has been updated to clarify the historical preservation process for Pine Grove School.
Irène Mathieu, MD is a general pediatrician and writer in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Virginia.