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African-American burial ground could impact proposed Cumberland landfill

Jeremy Lazarus | 8/30/2018, 6 a.m.
A long forgotten African-American burial ground is gaining renewed attention as opponents use it to raise fresh objections to a ...

A long forgotten African-American burial ground is gaining renewed attention as opponents use it to raise fresh objections to a proposed 1,200-acre landfill in rural Cumberland County about 50 miles west of Richmond.

The finding has come nearly two months after the Cumberland County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve the landfill and the millions of tons of waste it would generate, along with new resources for a locality whose population and property values have been in declining.

The burial ground is informal and simple. The names of those interred have long disappeared, and their graves are identified only by unmarked headstones. They appear to have gone untended for years, if not decades.

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Delegate Delores L. McQuinn

The graveyard’s discovery in a wooded area has boosted the morale of landfill opponents and begun attracting attention from General Assembly members, including Richmond Delegate Delores L. McQuinn, who has made the preservation of such burial grounds a priority.

The outside interest is good news to Victoria A. “Vikki” Ronnau, who has been a leader in organizing landfill opposition and in trying to find a way to prevent County Waste and its investors from securing the state and federal permits still needed before development can begin.

“We need all the help we can get,” she said of the battle with a well-heeled company.

For her, gravesite protection is a new front from which to attack the landfill plans.

“The company told us that there were no gravesites in this area, but that is definitely wrong,” Ms. Ronnau said.

Like other opponents, she is most concerned about noise and congestion from hundreds of trucks that would daily travel to and from the landfill on U.S. 60 and U.S. 522 and the potential for waste-infused toxic water from the site leeching into groundwater and contaminating nearby wells in Cumberland and Powhatan counties.

Company representative Jerry Cifor, who Tuesday accompanied Delegate McQuinn, Ms. Ronnau and other members of Cumberland County Landfill Awareness to see the graves, had expressed skepticism beforehand.

But he acknowledged the gravesite and promised it would be fenced off, Ms. Ronnau said after the visit. He also has hired a professional archaeology firm to investigate the property for historical buildings and more gravesites.

That is what Delegate McQuinn is seeking. She successfully led the General Assembly fight to secure state money to help pay for tending such old cemeteries.

To her, the potential conflict between a modern development and historic gravesites argues for stronger state laws to protect and preserve such sites.

Joining Delegate McQuinn in expressing concern about the landfill’s potential damage to the property’s burial ground are Richmond Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant Jr. and Powhatan Delegate R. Lee Ware.

The three legislators took part in a conference call last week about the burial ground. The call also included representatives from the state Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates landfills and issues permits for new ones.

Ms. Ronnau said the gravesite could be one of 15 scattered across the property. She said the timber company that previously owned the land and harvested the trees had marked burial sites as areas not to be disturbed.

She said finding the graves is not a surprise because the landfill would be located in the area of Clinton, a once thriving sawmill town that had a significant African-American population. The town long ago fell on hard times and currently has just a few buildings.