• Thu. Jun 30th, 2022

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History or jobs? Proposed grain elevator near historic Black community causes divisions

One side says history would be destroyed or at the least damaged, while the other says they owe it to the community to bring jobs.

WALLACE, La. — The descendants of slaves living in a historic Black community along the Mississippi River are calling on a judge to stop a $600 million grain terminal from being built next door.

The residents of the tiny community of Wallace on the West Bank of St. John the Baptist Parish say a 250-foot-tall grain elevator, conveyor system and grain storage facility doesn’t belong in the sugar cane fields their ancestors used to cultivate, on a sliver of land between their homes and the Whitney Plantation – an emerging tourist attraction dedicated to telling the story of enslaved people.

They say the project by Greenfield Louisiana amounts to environmental racism, where a poor community of color is targeted for potentially harmful and dangerous industrial development because they don’t have the voice to fight back.

“It’s right next to our homes,” said Joy Banner, communications director at Whitney Plantation and founder of the nonprofit Descendants Project, which filed the lawsuit to block the grain elevator. “It would tower over us, and it would block out the morning sun.”

An unlikely foe

But their appeals are being summarily dismissed by mostly Black politicians and community leaders, who say the grain facility will be state-of-the-art, safe, environmentally friendly and will bring hundreds of good-paying jobs to a place where economic opportunity has been scarce.

The Port of South Louisiana, which owns the land and is leasing it to Greenfield, is rolling out the red carpet for the project, pursuing a $25 million federal grant to help build the dock and offering Greenfield a tax break to let it pay a flat $2 million a year over 30 years instead of taxes based on increasing property value.

Without political support, the opponents of the grain elevator, led by sisters Joy and Jo Banner and their nonprofit Descendants Project, are going to court to block the construction based on a classic case of Louisiana political corruption from 32 years ago.

Zoning issues

Former Parish President Lester Millet Jr. was convicted in 1996 of money laundering and making threats in violation of the Hobbs Act. Millet used his influence to get the zoning on the property changed from agricultural to heavy industrial in 1990 so he could collect a broker’s fee for the sale of the Whitney Plantation to Formosa Plastics, so Formosa could build a rayon plant there.

Formosa backed out after an investigation by The Times-Picayune in 1991. Millet was convicted, but it appears the Parish Council never changed back the zoning. The zoning records are contradictory, and the zoning map attached to the sale of the Whitney Plantation property to Formosa in 1990 has been ripped out of the parish land book. The Clerk of Court even wrote an angry note in the land act book in 1994, threatening criminal charges against whomever took the map.

“I think that there is a way for the port, the parish, for all of us to all work together for forward progress. But you cannot do it if there is corruption,” Joy Banner said.

The Banners think the parish may have restored the original zoning to the property, based on a 2006 survey map that shows it zoned as residential.

But Port of Louisiana Executive Director Paul Matthews says the heavy industrial zoning is still in place.

“That’s what we know. There’s nothing else we can do to change that matter,” he said.

Greenfield’s attorney Lou Buatt said the Parish Council had 30 years to change the zoning back, and it’s way past the legal deadline for undoing an act of corruption.

“Even if there was some cause there, it likely prescribed a long time ago,” he said.

Plantation draws 100,000 a year

Joy Banner said the zoning confusion was discovered by attorney John Cummings after he purchased the plantation in 2000 and turned it into a museum dedicated to the history of enslaved people. It broke the mold of plantation tourism focused on the “big house” and landowners’ families and now draws more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Cummings had hoped to purchase the sugar cane fields between Whitney and Wallace as a buffer, Banner said, but was stopped cold when he discovered the zoning irregularities.

The Banners’ uncle, Lawrence Alexis, has seen it all in Wallace in his 94 years. He said he and his family owned and worked the land near the foot of the Gramercy Bridge for generations. Known as “Uncle Did,” Alexis sees the grain elevator as the latest threat to that heritage.

“They got another place to put it,” he said, his raspy voice rising. “Why they want to stick it all around me, around here?”

Proponents say grain elevator can be win-win

But Matthews says that’s the best spot for the grain terminal and building it there won’t hurt the Wallace community or tourism at Whitney Plantation at all.

“I think we can tell the story of African-American history while at the same time making sure there are jobs created for the descendants of those slaves,” he said.

Matthews is in his first months at the helm of Louisiana’s largest port, the Port of South Louisiana, and he’s the first Black port director in Louisiana history. He was the deputy director of the Plaquemines Parish Port, where he was embroiled in another controversy over a planned industrial development that threatened Black heritage sites on former plantation property.

In 2021, he notified Plaquemines port commissioners that three human bones had been found where an oil company wanted to build oil storage tanks, but he said he wasn’t aware that they were from two documented cemeteries, one for a wealthy Black man and his family who owned the St. Rosalie Plantation before and during the Civil War and the other for the enslaved people who lived and died there.

Greenfield and its supporters say surveys have shown there are no such burial grounds on the land it’s leasing to build the grain terminal, although the company said it could not release those records. The Descendants Project cited its own surveys that found “anomalies” on the property that could indicate the existence of long-forgotten burial grounds.

Concern work could damage historic plantation

There’s also concern about the potential damage reverberations from heavy industrial work could cause to the centuries’-old buildings at Whitney Plantation and nearby Evergreen Plantation, where the well-preserved slave quarters were recently featured in a haunting art exhibit at Prospect.5 by the renowned photographer Dawoud Bey.

Greenfield, meanwhile, is focused on building community support from local politicians and residents and business owners in Edgard, just down river from the Whitney Plantation. Vergie Jarrow Johnson, owner of Club VJ’s Restaurant and Bar in Edgard, said she was against building a chemical plant like Formosa had proposed but is in favor of the grain elevator.

“I think we need to allow the grain elevator to come through because jobs, education, as far as community growth,” Johnson said. “Because we have a lot of people here, students who have gone away who want to come back home, but we have to be able to generate something for them to come back home to.”

Matthews said he has received assurances from Greenfield Louisiana that the project will produce 500 construction jobs and 200 permanent staff positions and that the company is dedicated to hiring local. Asked how he would make sure the company follows through on that promise, Matthews said only that the port was “working closely” with Greenfield.

David Rollo, Greenfield’s chief administrative officer, announced a $1 million donation to West St. John High School and plans to set up scholarships and a curriculum at River Parish Community College, to help train residents to fill jobs at Greenfield that will pay as much as $75,000 annually.

Matthews also said the opponents’ environmental and health concerns about grain elevators have been overblown. Greenfield hired a physician who grew up in Edgard, Dr. Reggie Ross, to address the those concerns. He said the risk of respiratory problems from inhaling the grain dust is low because Greenfield is using enclosed infrastructure on its elevator and loop rail to prevent grain dust from escaping and limit the chances of explosions.

Rollo also said the self-cleaning grain silos would eliminate the traditional danger of workers being engulfed by stored grain.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, OSHA, has identified grain handling as a high-hazard industry and tracked 503 grain dust explosions that caused 677 injuries and 184 deaths at facilities between 1976 and 2011. The deadliest of them was an explosion at a facility in Westwego in 1977 that killed 36 people.

“If you buy a Chevy from the ‘70s and you buy a Chevy from the 2020s, which one you think will be more environmentally friendly?” Matthews said.

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