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A historic school, a mega-landfill and a battle for 'justice' in Cumberland County

A historic school, a mega-landfill and a battle for 'justice' in Cumberland County

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The old schoolhouse doesn’t look like much now — weather-beaten and worn, it stood neglected for decades before an effort to save it kicked into gear two years ago, and now there also is the worrying possibility of having a landfill nearby — but it holds fond memories for Alfred L. Austin, who grew up on a Cumberland County farm 3 miles away.

“I used to get up in the morning, milk six cows, walk to school, spend the day at school, then walk home and milk six cows again,” he said. “Among other things.”

In the era of segregation in the 1950s, school was a prized opportunity for Austin and other Black children in this section of Cumberland. The county provided a school for Black students, but it was 10 miles from Austin’s home and, without transportation, he simply couldn’t attend.

The solution was Pine Grove School, which had been built in 1917, one of six schools in Cumberland associated with the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which donated millions of dollars in matching funds — supplemented with contributions from Black communities, which constructed the schools — to support the education of Black children across the rural South.

Pine Grove was a two-room schoolhouse, divided by folding doors, Austin recalled. The school was set up for grades 1-6, but in such a confined space, it was difficult to separate the lessons by grade, meaning younger students were exposed to higher grade-level material sooner. It made for “kind of a weird, integrated learning process by default,” Austin said, which he believes made you “learn quicker.”

“I remember our teachers were like an extension of our parents,” said Austin, whose father taught at two Rosenwald schools in Cumberland, though he died when his son was 2. “Discipline was everything. I remember having to go down in the woods to the spring to get water. We’d have to get to school in the winter and start a fire in the stove for heat.”

The experience served Austin well. He went on to graduate from Luther P. Jackson High, the county’s Black high school, in 1966; attended what is now Hampton University; and graduated from Virginia Union, after which he went to work for Aetna as a claims trainee. He worked at the insurance company for the better part of three decades, retiring in 1996 as a senior vice president in charge of the company’s claims operation.

“That was all from my Pine Grove education,” he said. “I didn’t get an MBA from anywhere and, in those years, I competed with kids that had gone to prep school and Yale, Harvard and Wharton, you name it, and I think I did quite well.”

Now, Austin is among a group of Pine Grove alumni and others seeking to save Pine Grove before it falls to pieces and fades from memory. Why preserve what’s left of a ramshackle old building in an out-of-the-way location next to a country road?

“It’s a huge part of our history,” said Austin, who now lives in Midlothian. “I think things like the Pine Grove School ... are important for people to understand what it was like to be Black in America.”

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For those trying to preserve the school and its story for future generations, their work is complicated by Pine Grove’s potential neighbor: the proposed 1,200-acre Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility, a so-called mega-landfill that could accept more than 3,500 tons of waste per day if it is approved by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

The review process is continuing and could take “many months, perhaps a year or more,” a spokeswoman for the DEQ said last week.

A spokesman for County Waste of Virginia, which would operate the landfill, said the company is hopeful because it believes it is filling a need as other landfills in central Virginia are approaching maximum capacity.

In addition, the DEQ approved a previous landfill project in Cumberland more than a decade ago, though that landfill was never built. The company behind it, Republic Services, officially abandoned the project and surrendered its DEQ permit in 2018, the same year County Waste arrived with its proposal for eastern Cumberland.

The Cumberland Board of Supervisors approved the Green Ridge plan in June 2018, two months after Muriel Miller Branch learned the Pine Grove School, where she was a schoolmate of Austin, was in danger of being put up for auction because of delinquent taxes. The building had been saved more than half a century ago by a group of concerned citizens after it closed in 1964, when the county desegregated its schools. It was used for community activities, but had fallen into disuse and disrepair in recent years.

For a long time, former students and other individuals paid the county taxes on the building, but that became a strain on those bearing the load and, by 2018, taxes were in arrears. Meantime, the school was an unsightly mess: The building had grown dilapidated by neglect, the property overgrown with weeds and trees.

Branch and other members of the Agee-Miller-Mayo-Dungy Family Association stepped in. Members of the group, who have deep roots in the community and ties to the school, quickly raised the money to pay the tax bill. That was May 2018. Soon after, Branch said, the group learned of the landfill project.

“Our fight became twofold: to protect our history and culture and the environmental integrity of our rural community,” said Branch, an author and retired library media specialist with Richmond Public Schools who lives in Henrico County.

In terms of preservation, the group wants to repair the building and repurpose it as a cultural center. (The school was deeded to the AMMD Family Association in early 2019, and the AMMD Pine Grove Project, an extension of the family group that now oversees the school, incorporated earlier this year and is applying for tax-exempt status to enable fundraising and grant-seeking for renovations and community outreach projects.)

A community cleanup day greatly improved the property’s appearance. In the last year, the schoolhouse has been listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Places. Last spring, Preservation Virginia included the Pine Grove School Community on its annual list of Virginia’s Most Endangered Historic Places. Plans are in the works to seek a rural historic district designation, as well.

The Pine Grove group and others, such as the anti-landfill Cumberland County Landfill Alert, are concerned about the Green Ridge project for all of the reasons people typically oppose landfills — potential pollution, truck traffic and property values among them.

“We’re very concerned not only about Pine Grove School but other local residents in the area,” said Betty Myers of Cumberland County Landfill Alert.

Those opposing the landfill also are building a case around the notion of environmental justice, which holds that communities of color, often low-income, are regularly targeted for facilities such as landfills.

Pine Grove has drawn support from groups such as Preservation Virginia and the Southern Environmental Law Center.

“We wanted to amplify the local efforts to save the beloved school and community and just to acknowledge that these kinds of threats to African American historic resources are all too frequent,” said Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia.

A town hall meeting at the school on the first Sunday in December attracted, among others, Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a longtime civil rights leader who wrote an op-ed column in October for The Washington Post about Pine Grove, in which he blasted “environmental racism.”

And he explained: “Placing a mega-landfill on the healthy and untarnished land surrounding the school would not only pollute the air, traffic and overall environment of this already under-served community, but it would also restrict access to the school and keep people from the opportunity to learn from its history.”

County Waste of Virginia disputes the idea that the location of the landfill is an example of environmental racism. It hired a firm to conduct an economic analysis of the area that concluded “the location of the proposed Green Ridge facility does not disproportionately impact minorities or low-income communities.”

The study found the percentage of Black residents within a 6.2-mile radius of the center of the landfill site (those living within 5 miles of the property) was 19%, equal to that of the statewide population. Within a 2.2-mile radius, the percentage of Black residents was 18%.

The median household income within 6.2 miles — $52,948 — is higher than the median household income in rural localities of Virginia — $40,153.

County Waste spokesman Jay Smith also contests Chavis’ contentions about the landfill’s impact on the environment and the notion that the landfill would restrict access to the school by the proposed re-routing of Pinegrove Road, which leads to the school. In fact, Smith believes the school and the landfill “can co-exist.

“The school can be preserved, and the project can go forward,” he said.

County Waste has made a number of offers, without conditions, to contribute to the school’s preservation prior to the incorporation of the AMMD Pine Grove Project, Smith said, but all were rebuffed.

Earlier this fall, the company offered an annual percentage of “tipping fees” — a fee paid by anyone disposing of waste at the landfill — that Smith said could amount to $100,000 a year or more, as well as incentives including creation of a cultural history trail, a full archaeological study of the school property and other assurances about the development of the landfill site, in exchange for the support of the school group and approval of the landfill project.

But the AMMD Pine Grove Project board spurned the offer.

Branch said the offer was rejected because “the community has never thought a historical school and community would benefit from having a landfill in its midst.”

She acknowledged refusing the offer might make her organization appear “unreasonable.”

“If fighting with every fiber of our being to protect and preserve the history, culture and environment of the community our ancestors built during the nadir in American history is unreasonable, we are indeed unreasonable.”

Branch added that she has “lived long enough to see how communities of color have been ‘bought out’ and divided by corporations and monied people for a few pieces of silver,” Branch wrote later in a follow-up email. “If history has taught us anything, it is that money buys compliance and we will not be bought.”

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Green Ridge will be situated on the far eastern side of Cumberland, just north of U.S. 60. The landfill is within a mile of the Powhatan County line, which has resulted in Powhatan residents joining the chorus opposing the facility.

Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Chesterfield, whose district includes all of Powhatan but none of Cumberland, said she will introduce a historic preservation bill in the 2021 General Assembly that will ask the DEQ to take into consideration, as a part of the permitting process, the presence of a historic building or structure that may be endangered by the siting of a landfill.

Her predecessor, Glen Sturtevant, championed a bill that would have required approval from any locality within a 5-mile radius of a new landfill project, but it was killed in committee in 2019.

The Cumberland supervisors, who approved the Green Ridge project for economic reasons, have not warmed to opposition from neighboring counties.

In a July statement signed by four of the five members, the board said Cumberland is “rich in history and a wonderful place to raise a family. However, its citizens do not have the luxury of having industry and retail in our county as [do] our neighbors in Powhatan, Goochland, Fluvanna, Buckingham, Amelia, and Prince Edward.

“The prospects for working adults in this county are zero. We rely solely on property taxes in order to finance our county. We do not have the funds to support the services that are needed. We are seeking out businesses and industry to offset the economic burden on our citizens.”

The statement from the supervisors said other localities are attempting to deny Cumberland citizens “economic opportunity and economic justice.”

County Waste estimates the landfill would provide annual benefits to the county in the range of $1.4 million to $2.8 million per year and would employ about 30 people.

Other nuts and bolts about the landfill operation, in addition to the requisite compliance with DEQ environmental regulations, according to County Waste:

  • Though the landfill property is 1,200 acres, the actual disposal site will be 240 acres with the remaining acreage providing a buffer for neighbors.
  • The landfill will be constructed with a clay liner covered with a polyethylene membrane with a drainage system on top that will collect any water that enters the fill area, which will then be stored and hauled to a wastewater treatment facility.
  • Green Ridge would operate six days a week and accept between 3,500 and 5,000 tons per day, with non-hazardous waste coming from within a 500-mile radial distance from the facility, excluding waste form New York and New Jersey. Most of the waste will come from Virginia.
  • An average of 175 to 250 truckloads of waste is expected to arrive each day, the majority arriving at the site during off-peak hours. Trucks will enter the landfill by way of a 6,500-foot access road that will connect to U.S. 60.
  • The lifespan of the landfill will depend on a number of factors, but it is estimated that if 3,500 tons of waste per day are received, the facility would be open for 30 years. At 5,000 tons per day, the lifespan would decrease to 25 years.

Smith said the landfill will not accept sludge — the leftovers after wastewater treatment — or processed sheetrock, which will make odor issues “highly unlikely.”

The company also invited landowners with property within half a mile of the landfill site to participate in a program in which it would help offset any loss in property value due to the landfill. Nearly half of those eligible participated, the company said.

Twenty-two unmarked graves discovered on the southwest corner of the property — none in the actual 240-acre disposal area — will remain undisturbed and protected as a small cemetery, Smith said.

Opponents of the landfill are unmoved by the company’s statements or its community outreach — this month, the company established a $60,000 scholarship fund for Cumberland students who are minority, low-income or first-generation in their family to pursue post-secondary education — as it awaits the DEQ’s decision.

“AMMD Pine Grove Project is fighting as much for something as against,” Branch said. “We are fighting for equity in where toxic industries are placed. We are fighting for better education, internet access, health care, and living conditions in our community. We are fighting to change the paradigm in which our historic communities are seen and evaluated. We are fighting for stronger historic preservation, and stronger environmental justice legislation. We are fighting for our right to clean air and water.”

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