“Green Activist” Investor and Former Tulane Trustee Board Member, Chris James, Pushes Toxic Grain Elevator in Majority Black Community

Zen-Noh Grain Corporation Grain Elevator – Convent, LA” by chaddavis.photography is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Financial news was set ablaze last week when upstart hedge fund Engine No. 1 won at least two seats on Exxon’s board, siphoning shareholder votes–including backing from BlackRock–in their climate change-focused proxy battle. Chris James, Engine No. 1’s founder, was hailed as a victorious, environmental activist, securing industry recognition and what Matt Levine from Bloomberg called a “halo of environmental virtue” that Engine No. 1 “can fund raise off…forever.” With substantial connections to Louisiana, James is an alumnus of Tulane University, a former member of their Trustee Board and the principal of Medlock Investments, which owns Greenfield Louisiana, a company attempting to build a toxic grain elevator in the heart of Cancer Alley. 

The Wallace Grain Elevator is a proposed 248-acre, 36-silo monstrosity in St. John the Baptist Parish, which is already home to a mess of polluting industrial facilities and according to the EPA, has the highest cancer risk in the state of Louisiana and had the highest per capita COVID death rate in the nation.

 Wallace, LA, in St. John the Baptist Parish, is also Dr. Joy Banner’s home and has been her family’s home “since the 1700’s.” Dr. Banner is a descendant of enslaved Africans who were forced to labor in Plantation Country, cultivating sugar cane and other crops from the rich alluvial soil. She works as the Director of Communications at the Whitney Plantation– one of the few plantations that is dedicated to educating the public about slavery, as opposed to the many that cover their history to operate as wedding venues. The grain elevator would be built less than a mile from the Whitney Plantation, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, with the elevator reaching 300 feet, or roughly the height of the Statue of Liberty.

Dr. Banner and her twin sister are also co-founders of the Descendants Project, which seeks to help their community and increase representation of descendants in the booming plantation tourism industry. She has had to put much of that aside though to prioritize protecting her family and community against the toxic grain elevator. She said, “Since March my life has not been the same. I’ve really been organizing actions, getting the community together, getting letters to be sent into the Corps of Engineers, and you know, researching, trying to find as much research as we can on Greenfield.” 

She also has concerns about the expansive grain elevator property, which is located on the historical grounds of three plantations, noting, “The likelihood that there are at least three cemeteries on that site is very high.” This would not be the first time a massive facility disturbed the graves of enslaved people either. The proposed Formosa Plastics mega plant, just up the river from Wallace in St. James Parish, came under fire for disturbing graves and attempting to bar residents from visiting their ancestors.

For the past two weeks, while Chris James has been making his environmental activist debut, Dr. Banner has been listening to the “incessant pounding” of beams being hammered into the ground to test that it can hold the weight of the facility. To this point, Dr. Banner added, “You know, it’s Christopher James who has the audacity to position himself in the national media– that he’s not going to get called on this– and at the same time he’s literally in my backyard, possibly digging up my ancestors.” 

The massive elevator is a huge concern to residents especially considering that it would jeopardize their already compromised air quality and community health. The plant intends to emit 81 tons of particulate matter and 37 tons of fine particulate matter annually, which the EPA has linked to increased respiratory symptoms in children, asthma, and premature death. Exposure is especially dangerous for individuals with chronic respiratory issues, which many residents suffer from because of the toxic emissions from the other plants. Although Dr. Banner’s family has resided in St. John the Baptist for centuries, she said that the negative health impacts would “make our community unlivable… we would have to move.”

But Dr. Banner is not leaving without a fight. She said “I think people are just so tired of seeing or hearing us. I don’t care. I’ll go up against anybody with a megaphone.”

On Monday at 6:30pm, Dr. Banner and Lieutenant General Russel Honoré will be hosting a Wallace Community Town Hall at Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe to discuss alternate industries and ways to protect the community.

Chris James could not be reached for comment. 

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