Proposed Grain Elevator Charged By Community With Environmental Racism

Photo source: Louisiana Bucket Brigade

A press conference was held August 23rd in Wallace by the community organization, Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator, voicing opposition and demands in response to a proposed grain terminal in Wallace, Louisiana. Representatives from the Center for Constitutional Rights, Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, RISE St. James, and Louisiana Bucket Brigade were in attendance. The grain terminal, proposed by Greenfield LLC, has faced intense backlash from the local community and legal advocates. Opponents of the facility have a laundry list of concerns and argue that Greenfield is overstepping legal and ethical lines. 

The St. John the Baptist Parish facility joins a list of other controversial industrial projects, like Nucor and Formosa, aimed for the area that has been darkly dubbed, “Cancer Alley” – a heavily industrialized stretch along the Mississippi River in the River Parishes. A litany of studies have shown that the primarily Black communities near these facilities suffer from disproportionate high rates of cancer due to toxic air pollution. 97.55% of Wallace’s 1,263 residents are Black. 

Greenfield filed permit applications in March to build a 248-acre facility and initially claimed the facility would have 38 silos and employ 60 people in various positions for wheat, corn, and soybean processing. The facility would have some structures as tall as 300-feet and is adjacent to a residential neighborhood. This prompted Wallace natives Jo and Joy Banner, co-founders of Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator and co-owners of the Fee-Fo-Lay Café in Wallace, to speak out for their community’s interest. Big Easy Magazine reached out to Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator to understand why they don’t want a grain elevator in their backyard.

“The Wallace community is quite literally traumatized by Greenfield’s plans to build a massive grain terminal that would completely destroy our way of life and contribute to the disastrous health and environmental conditions we endure every day,” says Joy Banner, “Working together with our legal advocates and experts, we have uncovered several disturbing scandals surrounding this project.”

Public Health Concerns

Critics of the facility are reasonably concerned about having a massive grain facility spitting distance from their homes. Excessive noise at obtrusive hours and the landfill-like odor of rotting grain are sincere concerns, but public health is the elephant in the room in Cancer Alley. Many came forward in March testifying to the various negative impacts that a grain elevator would have, drawing upon the experiences of those who live near a grain elevator in Reserve who have cited concerns ranging from health issues to “rats bigger than puppies.” The Gargantuan rats is immediately concerning, but a bigger concern may be smaller in size. The American Thoracic Society describes grain dust as “complex and contains a mixture of different types of grain, insect parts, fungi, bacteria, bird and rodent droppings, pesticides, and silica.” Many of these contaminants can cause respiratory disease in people who inhale the dust, which is a clear community concern. Especially concerning the spread of the Delta variant, given that particulate matter exposure has been found to increase the risk of positive COVID-19 infections.

Criminal Land Designations

One of the major arguments of opponents of Greenfield’s planned facility is that it violates zoning laws and the current zoning designations are based on illegal and false pretense. The planned facility is mere feet from the residential area of Wallace. Banner explains, “Municode Section 410-113 of parish ordinances protect residential neighborhoods with at least 2000 feet between residential concentrations and Industrial 3 zones. The land of the proposed grain terminal violates this ordinance.” 

An Industrial District Three, commonly referred to as I-3, is defined by the St. John the Baptist Parish Code of Ordinances as being, “intended to promote, provide for, and protect areas for heavy industry with intense uses, while at the same time, making the areas compatible with adjacent nonindustrial areas and uses.” There is an active recognition in the I-3 designation that deliberate and thoughtful efforts to insulate communities from the impact of local heavy industry is legally necessary, so the question becomes: How is Greenfield getting away with this?

Banner has an answer. “The land was changed to Industrial 3 for Formosa in the early 90’s. Several people, including the Parish Council President went to jail for accepting bribes to illegally change the land.” The referenced Formosa Plastic Group received permits last year for a $9.4 billion petrochemical facility in neighboring St. James Parish. The facility faced tremendous opposition from community organizers, like RISE St. James, as well as members of Congress, legal advocates, and environmentalists from around the world. The work of those activists generated enough scrutiny to get the attention of the Army Corps of Engineers who are now doing a full environmental review of the planned facility.

The complaints of Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator echo the concerns voiced in neighboring St. James Parish. Parish councils and a state government so beholden to private interest that they’re willing to poison, disenfranchise, and disrespect their constituents. Despite the I-3 land designation stemming from an almost 30-year old corruption scandal, Banner says, “The parish never went back and corrected the crime and the residents have had to suffer ever since.”

The Descendants Project, an organization that fights for the rights of slave descendent communities, issued a letter of formal complaint on August 23rd that addresses this, stating, “Even if the zoning designation were valid, the proposed grain elevator would violate it because it would wholly occupy the 2,000-foot area right next to residential dwellings.”  

Disenfranchisement & Private Interest

Banner is also critical of the apparent disconnect between the community of Wallace and their representatives. There are also concerns in regards to governmental transparency. Despite the outspoken resistance of many members of the community, public bodies seem to not be on the same page. Banner points to the Port of South Louisiana. They have applied for federal funding for a dock to lease to Greenfield, but, Banner says, “there are no meeting minutes, agenda items, CEA’s, or MOU’s.”

This seems to be a recurring issue. There are also no meeting minutes or agenda items from when five parish council members and the council president signed a letter in support of the facility. Additionally, the parish council has stated that they can’t do anything about the facility and has still not put the matter on the agenda. 

Banner also notes, “Greenfield has planned to bring councilmembers Becnel and Madere to Washington to view their facilities and have had conversations with them.” The combination of non-transparency and shutting down public discourse has left the community skeptical of whether their present council is much different from the one that dealt with Formosa in the 90s.

Community & Cultural Erasure

Greenfield, in response to community backlash, is running their own PR campaign. They recently launched a website that claims that, “The development of the Wallace Grain property is meant to diversify the local tax base and ease the region’s energy and agricultural transition by receiving and transporting grain in a cleaner, more sustainable way while creating more than 100 direct local jobs, 500 indirect jobs, and significant local and state tax revenue.” Curiously, the website also advertises “54 silos.” This is a sizable expansion from their statements in March advertising 60 direct local jobs and 38 silos. This is because they applied for an even larger permit in June than the one they submitted in March.

Even more curiously, the website claims that the company has “met with more than 500 local residents, businesses, and community leaders,” but Banner, a long-time resident and the primary voice of community opposition, says they were never informed or given a space to express their concerns. Banner is skeptical of these claims of community engagement pointing out that, “Greenfield has not produced any flyers, social media posts, invites, sign in sheets, photos, videos, etc. of any of these supposed meetings.” Greenfield’s website advertises a “Local First Policy” that would prioritize local residents in employment positions, but – clearly – that isn’t enough to sway critics.

Greenfield’s attempt to paint themselves as a community-friendly project comes off as especially ironic in light of Banner’s accusation of community erasure stating, “Most troubling of all, Greenfield’s plans have erased two residential streets, with African American residents, off of the site plans submitted to the Corps of Engineers and other permitting agencies.” Leaked emails of a Greenfield official pleading with a state agency to not issue a public notice confirm that it is no secret that Greenfield is tip-toeing around a PR disaster they’d like to avoid.

One such PR disaster might be that the facility is almost definitely being built atop burial sites of people who were enslaved on the Horn, Mialaret, and Whitney Plantations. The Descendants Project cites maps assembled by forensic researchers which show anomalies that usually denote unmarked burial sites. Wallace is also home to the Whitney Plantation Museum, which employs many members of the community and educates the public about the horrors of slavery. The planned facility threatens to erase not just residents, but also the cultural artifacts and deep history of Wallace. 

Greenfield, like many other controversial industrial projects in the river parishes, wants to sell an economic story of jobs and a diverse tax base. This is meant to absolve them of building on the graves of slaves in the backyard of a primarily Black community on illegally zoned land without accepting critical community feedback. It’s unclear how 100 jobs and a marginally more diverse tax base is going to help the over 1,000 residents of Wallace, especially when property values plummet because there is a grain elevator in the backyard. 

Reformative Economics

Banner and Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator have made demands. At their press conference, they demanded that the parish president, Director of Planning and Zoning, and the Zoning Administrator issue a notice to all relevant Parish departments and agency that the I-3 designation for the area violates the distance requirements and that no building or related permit should be issued while this matter is pending. They also demand that this be communicated with Greenfield and that a formal explanation be given to the public for the process by which the area has come to be designated as I-3. It’s unclear why the Parish won’t give the community a voice at this time, but that hasn’t stopped them speaking up anyway. If it’s because politicians believe the grain elevator is a real economic necessity, Banner has a reason why it’s not:

“Harmful industries use the promise of “jobs” to try to curry favor with residents. Unfortunately, these jobs are harmful and people have to sacrifice their health and potentially their lives for a job that they may or may not get. Unfortunately, our parish entities suppress other viable economic opportunities in deference to petro chemical. Greenfield’s own archaeological studies reveal that the site is saturated with historical and cultural artifacts, including material culture from the civil war and antebellum days. We have a rich heritage and tourism industry. Unfortunately, descendants and community members are left out of the economic ecosystem. These precious lands, including those with our enslaved ancestors buried in the ground, offer a rich educational and entrepreneurial opportunity for community members. The river parishes should serve as a laboratory to learn about slavery, the plantation system, and African culture. We have career opportunities in everything from archaeology, heritage and tourism, to conservation and wildlife and fisheries.”

Whether Greenfield will join Nucor and Formosa amongst the list of failed recent projects in “Cancer Alley” is yet to be known. What is certain is that the residents of Wallace are taking a stand for their community and their culture.

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