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Concerned about unmarked graves, St. John group asks for grain terminal construction to stop

Halle Parker
A trailer sits in the road off West 7th Street in Wallace, Louisiana on Thursday, April 21, 2022. To the left, steel pilings stand where a proposed grain terminal would be constructed. To the right, houses of a predominantly Black neighborhood stand. Some residents oppose the grain terminal, wary of the industrial facility's impacts to health and the land.

A St. John Parish group wants the court to stop any digging on property at the center of an ongoing legal battle that’s slated for the construction of a $400 million grain terminal.

The Descendants Project filed a motion for a temporary restraining order on Thursday in the 19th Judicial District Court to prevent “ground-penetrating” activities to protect what they believe to be unmarked burial grounds of people once enslaved on the 248-acre site.

The request came after some residents received notices from the company that pre-construction activities could occur from May 19 to June 24 that included driving steel test pilings into the ground.

The judge scheduled a hearing for June 3 to deliberate an injunction after Greenfield Louisiana, LLC, the company behind the multimillion-dollar project, said it didn’t plan to start hammering until June 6, removing the need for immediate action, according to Pam Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who represents the Descendants Project.

The push comes nearly a month after the same court ruled the Descendants Project’s lawsuit against St. John the Baptist Parish over the property’s zoning could move forward, denying a motion to dismiss from Greenfield and the parish. The company stated it would appeal that decision, but Judge J. Sterling Snowdy has yet to release his official reason for the ruling.

This isn’t the first time the group has tried to halt construction activities. Last May, Greenfield drove several steel pilings into the farmland in Wallace to test the soil. Descendants Project co-founders and sisters Joy and Jo Banner feared burial sites could be struck then as well, and asked the state archeologist Dr. Charles "Chip" McGimsey to issue a cease and desist.

They argued an analysis conducted by London-based research group Forensic Architecture found several anomalies on the land, which was once part of three plantations. Those anomalies in the landscape are sometimes associated with cemeteries.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, however, said his office could only step in if a grave site was actually disturbed.

“Only upon definitive discovery or disturbance might our jurisdictions be triggered,” Landry said in a letter on June 1, 2021.

Whitney Plantation analysis Forensic Architecture
Forensic Architecture
In an analysis of satellite imagery, U.K.-based firm Forensic Architecture searched the industrial corridor along the Mississippi River and found several "anomalies" - shaded green - near the Whitney Plantation and others in Wallace that could demarcate unmarked burial sites of once-enslaved people.

But Spees believes this attempt to stymie construction could be successful. The lawsuit, she said, has changed the circumstances surrounding the property since last summer by debating whether the land was rezoned illegally three decades ago. If the property is meant to be residential, then industrial activity wouldn’t be allowed on it. Plus, any ground disturbance would be pointless if the judge ultimately rules in the nonprofit’s favor, she argued.

“If the judge determines ultimately on the merits … that that zoning doesn’t apply, that it’s null, then Greenfield can’t build a heavy industry facility there. Then pile testing for that industrial facility is rendered meaningless, right? It shouldn’t be happening,” Spees said.

Joy Banner said the last round of test pile driving was traumatic for her as she feared the remains of her ancestors could be struck. The Banner sisters and many others in Wallace are descended from those enslaved on the nearby Whitney Plantation.

“Those graves don’t have the same protection,” she said, comparing the cemeteries of slaves to those of their enslavers. “These are the graves of men, women, children and babies that would be destroyed. It’s their final resting place.”

Company officials said they were “gratified” by the judge’s decision to reject the temporary restraining order, who have argued the Descendants Project’s argument lacks legal grounding.

A survey contracted by Greenfield in 2020 by the Gulf South Research Corporation found no cultural resources on the site, including graves, and didn’t recommend further archaeological investigation.

Steel Pilings Wallace Greenfield Grain Terminal.jpg
Halle Parker
Steel pilings from Greenfield Louisiana's soil tests last year stand in the footprint of the company's planned $479 million grain terminal in Wallace, Louisiana.

But a recent ProPublica investigation found that the architectural historian drafting the survey originally noted the project would have “an adverse effect on historic properties” and that no enslaved cemeteries had been found yet “despite hundreds of enslaved people being kept there for over 155 years.” The final version removed the mention of slaves and stated there wouldn’t be an adverse effect after the company refused to accept the report, according to the article.

Greenfield Chief Operations Officer Cal Williams said the company stands by the report’s findings.

“We respect our community and remain committed to being good neighbors. The firm that conducted our historical survey, and their historian, have reaffirmed that their research and conclusions were based solely on facts and evidence at hand — and no other factors,” he said.

The company has “committed to immediately halt if any cultural or historical resources are surfaced during construction to ensure the proper experts and authorities are brought in,” Williams continued.

Company officials estimate the grain export terminal, backed by local and state officials, could produce up to 500 construction jobs and 200 permanent staff positions for residents, though initial estimates suggested it would supply 60 to 100 jobs with an average salary of $75,000.

Greenfield recently signed a 30-year cooperative agreement with the Port of South Louisiana that renders it exempt to property tax. Instead, it will pay $4 million to the parish in 2022 and $2 million each year that follows while leasing the property from the port, according to the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate.

Halle Parker reports on the environment for WWNO's Coastal Desk.

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