South Richmond Residents Oppose Fire Training Facility

RICHMOND, Va.—South Richmond residents are fighting back against a 21,0000-square-foot fire training facility approved for construction on a site bordering a wildlife sanctuary.

The training facility is projected to be finished by June 2024 in the 8th district of Richmond, a predominantly Black and Latinx community with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate that faces  high heat vulnerability, according to a Climate Equity Index developed by the city’s Office of Sustainability.  

Initially, Richmond’s Urban Design Committee and Planning Commission rejected the fire training facility proposed for 3000 East Belt Boulevard in February and March after finding that  it was not environmentally suitable, among other factors. Despite this, 8th District Councilmember Reva Trammell and Mayor Levar Stoney overturned the rejection and  submitted a resolution in the City Council to move forward with the proposal.

“I’m 100 percent in favor of this,” Trammell said at an April 3 Planning Commission meeting. “I’ve spoken to so many people in the 8th District, 9th District who are supportive of this.”

At the meeting, 11 people spoke out against the proposed training facility. Mechelle Esparza, a resident of Deerbourne and executive director of the Serene Wildlife Sanctuary, said her organization was not notified by the Richmond Fire Department about the training facility. The sanctuary is approximately 100 meters away from the proposed facility, Esparza said. 

The sanctuary was a dream of Esparza’s father, Antonio Esparza, who wanted the land to conserve animal and plant life in the 1970s, Esparza said. Decades later, Esparza’s mother purchased the land with Esparza running the sanctuary to continue making her late father proud, she said. 

The four-acre sanctuary is forested with a mix of trees dominated by hardwood pine and borders Hickory Hill Community Center. Because a stream running through the sanctuary is a tributary of Grindall Creek and the James River, the sanctuary is protected under the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, which was passed to secure and enhance water quality in the Chesapeake Bay through efficient land use management measures.

The Serene Wildlife Sanctuary is also home to thirteen recognized federal and state endangered species, including the James River spinymussel, a small freshwater mussel in the stream, according to documents provided by Esparza. She said the stream in the sanctuary would be vulnerable to runoff and stormwater from the proposed facility. 

Because the proposed facility will require replacing grass with concrete, rainwater will wash off from the concrete into the sanctuary’s soil and nearby stream, said Kendra Esparza-Harris, Esparza’s daughter and a member of the Serene Wildlife Sanctuary. Before the training facility was proposed, the sanctuary was already working to rejuvenate the stream, which was choked by garbage and toxic pollution, said Esparza-Harris, who is a Ph.D. research fellow in Natural Resources and Agroforestry at the University of Missouri.  

Although a detention pond to capture the runoff was proposed by Tom Delego, an employee of Greeley & Hansen, the Fire Department’s environmental consultant, at a planning commission meeting on April 3, Esparza-Harris said this is at best a temporary solution, noting that once the pond is full, the runoff will be released to the stream or soak into the soil. 

Delego declined to comment on how the Richmond Fire Department will ensure runoff does not deteriorate the sanctuary’s stream. 

In addition to concerns of harming the sanctuary, the Fire Department will have to replace and relocate the hundreds of trees on the site of the proposed training facility that were planted in 2021 by Southside Releaf, Sheri Shannon, co-founder of the nonprofit, said. The group’s mission is to plant as many trees as possible to fight extreme heat in South Richmond. 

Once the facility is in operation, there would be smoke produced for training purposes, the Fire Department said at the Planning Commission meeting. The smoke would be generated by Superior Smoke Candles, which contain zinc chloride mist, a mixture irritating for the eyes and also for those with respiratory problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shannon said she is concerned how the active smoke could impact residents, with  10.9 percent of the adult population in the 8th district already suffering from asthma, according to the Climate Equity Index tool.

“We are number four in the country for having the highest asthma-related deaths,” Shannon said. “So we’re looking at adding something that is toxic and polluting to a community that already is dealing with pollution.” 

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The Fire Department took almost a year looking at various sites after its current facility was declared unusable by an engineering consultant from the Structures Group Engineering Solutions in September 2021, Travis Ford, the department’s assistant chief, said. 

“For decades, the RFD has traveled outside of the community to train our firefighters, which cost our taxpayers almost $1 million a year that can now be repurposed for use at Hickory Hill,” Petula Burks, the department’s spokesperson, said. 

Establishing a training facility adjacent to Hickory Hill Community Center will result in  engagement between firefighters and Southside residents, Burks added. 

Esparza-Harris disagrees, saying that reducing green space in an already vulnerable community is environmental injustice. 

“It is saddening to see because the community has voiced exactly what they want,” Esparza-Harris said. “To have it turned around and given to the Fire Department for a burn facility just seems like a very inequitable situation.” 

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                Ananya Chetia is a rising senior at the University of Richmond majoring in journalism with a double minor in English and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Ananya serves as an executive editor for her college newspaper and was a spring intern for Richmond Magazine, a lifestyle magazine in Richmond, Virginia. Before coming to study in the United States, Ananya lived in an oil compound in Saudi Arabia. Her upbringing made her think about how fossil fuels affect the planet and how different communities are more harmed than others by environmental changes. Ananya looks forward to joining an ambitious team of journalists asking the same questions that she has about climate change, global warming and how communities work to fight against or further harm the environment.

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