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Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. column: Will Virginia's next governor stand up to environmental racism?

I have spent my life fighting against injustices that communities of color needlessly face in this country. We deal with drastic inequality in our education, health care, housing options, police system and so much more.

One of the greatest issues we face, and one that has been a priority for me, is environmental racism. African Americans are two times more likely to live without potable water and modern sanitation, and more than half of people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities are people of color.

I thought that nationally recognized events like the Flint water crisis in Michigan would teach this country a lesson, but I was sadly mistaken. That means that we must continue to speak up and demand that our voices be heard.

A year ago, I wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling attention to an issue in Cumberland County, where the Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility, a 1,200-acre-mega-landfill, is subject to be built right next to a historic landmark: the Pine Grove School. A Rosenwald School, Pine Grove was built more than 100 years ago in the Jim Crow era to provide a refuge and educational lifeline for African American children.

While the community long has known of Pine Grove’s significance and importance, the small schoolhouse recently gained national recognition when it was listed as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places for 2021. This mega-landfill threatens to tarnish that significance and make Pine Grove inaccessible to the surrounding community.

In an effort to raise awareness of the issue — along with my partners in the Healthcare Equality Network, the AMMD Pine Grove Project and Sierra Club Virginia chapter — we held a Thanksgiving event at the school. At the gathering, we invited local community members, Pine Grove alumni and other activists to call upon the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to hear our voice and deny approval to this gross injustice. Unfortunately, to this day, no action has been taken.

Now, as Virginia is faced with a political inflection point during its gubernatorial election, it is my hope that this threat will be put to bed once and for all. While we have seen progress in Virginia in the world of environmental justice, with the appointment of the Virginia Advisory Council on Environmental Justice and the Virginia Environmental Justice Act, it is time for real actions to replace unsubstantiated promises. This mega-landfill is the exact type of issue that groups and legislation like this were created to address, yet we still are being confronted with a long period of delay and apathy.

That is why, along with the Healthcare Equality Network, I am calling on gubernatorial candidates Glenn Youngkin and Terry McAuliffe to leverage their leadership positions and prioritize environmental justice in Virginia. Now is the time to put words into action — we have waited long enough.

The Green Ridge Recycling and Disposal Facility is planning to accept up to 5,000 tons of waste every day from a 500-mile radius that extends well beyond Virginia’s borders, and it would operate 24 hours a day, six days a week. How many dump trucks will that bring to the street that Pine Grove School sits on, adding traffic and destroying the already suffering roads? How many pollutants will be added to the community’s shared air?Virginia already has plenty of landfills — we do not need to add another to an already struggling community.

As Alfred L. Austin, an alumnus of Pine Grove, said in an interview with The Times-Dispatch, “I think things like the Pine Grove School ... are important for people to understand what it was like to be Black in America.” Austin is exactly right: We can never forget what our people have been through; otherwise we are destined to continue the same cycle of injustice, and this mega-landfill proves exactly that.

Candidates McAuliffe and Youngkin, you have a chance to preserve history, to prioritize a community that is never put first and to choose the people of this state over the profits of a waste corporation. Will you take the opportunity to serve as an example for the rest of the country and help break the chain of environmental racism?

Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is the president and CEO of the National Newspaper Publishers Association: The Black Press of America. He resides in Washington. Contact him at:

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