Activists want to keep industry out of St. John west bank. Could a historic designation help?
St. John the Baptist Parish’s west bank along the Mississippi River provides an uninterrupted, 14-mile-long window into the past. Many of the houses are 200 years old, living relics that date back to the arrival of German settlers and slavery.
Lush sugarcane fields and oak trees draped in Spanish moss line the road. It’s a timeless country scene, reminiscent of when the plantations peppered a region now dominated by the descendants of those who were enslaved.
Driving along the west bank, St. John resident Cortni Becnel sees her family’s fingerprints at every turn. Like many locals, Becnel said her family descended from multiple plantations, including the nationally-prominent Whitney and Evergreen plantations.
“The whole stretch is based off of descendants. It's people who come from these plantations, it's not like we all migrated here and settled here,” Becnel said.
The story of the west bank is the story of her ancestors. Land built up by the same hands that were once forced to labor on it. To her, it represents the ultimate story of freedom.
“A lot of us have the choice to live somewhere else, but most people here, they're here because they want to be here,” she said.
Becnel sees her home town as almost magically preserved, especially when one looks across the river. St. John’s east bank starkly contrasts the landscape of the west. It’s lined with industrial plants ranging from oil refineries to alumina plants hoarding piles of red dust.
St. John sits in the middle of Louisiana’s so-called “Cancer Alley,” an 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River where many residents live with an elevated cancer risk, among other health threats, due to pollution from more than 150 industrial plants.
Unlike the rest of the state’s chemical corridor, no plants have been built on the west bank. But some residents fear that could change as industrial developers eye farmland near the predominantly Black community of Wallace.
As part of an effort to slow industrial encroachment and preserve the community’s history, federal officials are now contemplating whether St. John’s west bank could earn one of the country’s most prestigious historic designations: a National Historic Landmark.
Back in April, the National Trust for Historic Preservation — the nation’s foremost historic preservation nonprofit — named St. John’s west bank one of the most endangered historic places in the U.S. The advocacy group has worked with locals fighting against a $479 million grain elevator and dock proposed near Wallace for more than a year.
Plans for the 54-silo, 275-foot-tall grain elevator have been delayed amid a flurry of lawsuitsfrom a St. John nonprofit, The Descendants Project, and an intense federal review of the project’s impact on nearby historic sites that is still ongoing.
Greenfield Louisiana LLC, the company behind the grain elevator, has said the new, state-of-the-art facility would be enclosed to limit how much pollution escapes, but it would still be permitted by the state to release up to 37 tons of fine particulate matter a year.
That size of particulates is easy for people to inhale. It can then enter the bloodstream and has been linked to respiratory and other health problems. It would also be on top of the particulate matter pollution from other industrial plants that was linked toa higher rate of COVID-19 deaths in a 2022 study.
If St. John’s west bank became a National Historic Landmark, any action that received federal funding or approval would come under more scrutiny. Decision makers would be required to assess whether a project proposed for a federal grant or permit would harm the protected district.
Cynthia Walton, who works for the National Park Service, noted that under the National Historic Preservation Act, that process should happen with any federal action regardless of whether an area’s historic status has been federally recognized. But national landmarks tend to receive more consideration.
“With National Historic Landmarks, there is a higher bar for those properties in that the National Historic Preservation Act asks agencies to the maximum extent possible to try to minimize harm to those properties,” Walton said.
The Army Corps of Engineers is already going through the assessment process with Greenfield, and it could take several more months to complete.
Currently, the federal agency is accepting public input on whether the local community wants to become a landmark through the end of August. If the Park Service moves forward, it would take another two to five years before the agency determines whether the area qualifies to be a landmark.
Descendants Project co-founder Jo Banner, whose group initiated contact with the National Park Service, believes the designation could serve as a rally cry for the community as some battle against the planned development.
“It brings a lot more eyes to our fight and the need to protect the west bank of St. John Parish and Wallace,” Banner said.
Banner and much of her extended family live in Wallace, close to where the grain elevator would be built. But, possibly more consequential, there is a proposed dock that Greenfield and the Port of South Louisiana have sought federal dollars to help build.
If constructed, Banner worries the dock could invite more heavy industry to develop on the west bank — opening it up for market.
“Once Wallace falls, the whole west bank is going to fall,” she said. “Because then you will have the method of shipping that's so important to these petrochemical companies, grain elevators — you name it.”
The west bank has been labeled a federal opportunity zone, offering companies tax incentives to locate there. It also holds four large plots of land that the Louisiana Economic Development office is currently marketing to businesses, as well as the potential site for a stalled fertilizer plant owned by Russian company EuroChem in Lucy. The land slated for development was similarly promoted by LED.
But some west bank residents feel that new development could provide the jolt the area needs.
The prospect of the grain elevator has become a flashpoint, stoking division between relatives and friends within what has historically been a tight-knit community. A seemingly simple question sits at the center of the conflict: What should the future of the west bank look like?
To Chad Roussell, a native and volunteer firefighter, the grain elevator represents an opportunity to breathe new life into a region that has seen its elementary school lose more than a third of its enrollment over the past decade. Roussell said he’s watched his friends leave for areas with more jobs and affordable housing.
“There’s pretty much nothing to offer someone to stay here,” he said.
For many, the west bank has become the poster child for disinvestment. He’s grown tired of the endless sugarcane fields that could be used for more housing, new stores and an actual gas station. And Roussell questioned whether becoming a historic landmark would leave the area further behind.
“When I think of the west bank, it's always forgotten. We always hit the short end of the stick,” Roussell said. “We pretty much use our own roadblocks because one minute, we're saying we want change and we want to grow, but then on the other hand, we’re blocking the opportunities that we get.”
Greenfield has pledged to open a local foundation that would fund grants for the local high school, West St. John, open a local health clinic, as well as provide scholarships to students for community college.
In a statement to L’Observateur earlier this year, a company spokesperson said, “While we respectfully disagree with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Descendants Project’s opposition to our community-first, environmentally sound, economic development effort, we share their desire to honor the west bank community’s heritage.”
The company also promised to set aside part of the grain elevator site to dedicate to local history that will “tell a more complete story that connects to Louisiana’s historic tourism infrastructure.”
Those who oppose the grain elevator, like Banner, have argued they shouldn’t be forced to choose between jobs and their heritage — or their health.
“What you need is systemic change,” Banner said. “It's really sad how communities come under threat, and their vulnerabilities are used to just completely decimate communities.”
Becnel, who now lives in LaPlace on the east bank, said she supports the historic designation but believes there can be a balance between development. She knows that’s something the community as a whole will have to imagine together.
“I have family who’s on both sides. Any industry has pros and cons and you just have to decide: What do you want the future of the west bank to look like?” Becnel said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: To submit comments to the National Park Service on their Great River Road Historic Context Study, visit this page.