The proposed construction site is near the Whitney Planation, now a museum that focuses on the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked there. (Joshua Rosenberg/The Lens)

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is questioning the validity of a “cultural resource survey” that the company behind a proposed grain elevator in St. John the Baptist Parish contracted as part of a federally mandated review of potential impacts on historic sites from the project. 

The report, submitted to the Corps in order to obtain a construction permit to build the facility in close proximity to historic sites, said the surveying firm could find nothing historically significant on the proposed construction site that would be adversely impacted. But a recent news article reported that the original author of the report objected to those findings, and the Corps is now concerned that it was improperly altered. 

The Corps is concerned with the cultural resource survey that Greenfield Louisiana LLC, a Colorado-based company, submitted related to the project, a spokesperson said. Greenfield submitted its report to both the Army Corps and the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office. 

“The concern was related to the rigor or lack thereof of the survey,” René Poché, spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers told The Lens. WWNO reported yesterday that the Corps is concerned with the “insufficiency” of the report. 

The Corps voiced its concerns after the federal agency charged with protecting historic sites, the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, raised its own misgivings in a letter to the Corps last week. The ACHP alluded to reporting ProPublica conducted earlier this year, showing that one of the report’s co-authors resigned from the company Greenfield contracted to conduct the survey, Gulf South Research Corporation, after her concerns that the proposed site may harm cultural resources like enslaved persons’ unmarked burial grounds were elided from the firm’s final report. 

“As we understand, the report’s original recommendations regarding the presence of an eligible historic district that would be adversely affected by the undertaking were altered prior to submission to the Corps by contractors of Greenfield,” Jaime Loichinger, assistant director in the ACHP’s office of federal agency programs, said in the letter, dated June 21. “The ACHP requests that the Corps clarify how it will address this issue.”

Greenfield did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Spanning some 248 acres, the proposed elevator would stretch within mere hundreds of feet of the community of Wallace and would cast both a literal and figurative shadow over the lives of the mostly-Black community and would adversely impact the community’s health, which is already located in the state’s so-called “Cancer Alley,” according to a group of residents who have opposed its construction. 

The Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving Louisiana’s historic sites, added the 11-mile stretch of the Mississippi River’s West Bank in St. John, which includes Wallace, to its “Most Endangered Places” list earlier this month. 

“Plans for a large-scale grain elevator, port and other industrial development will change this corridor’s historic integrity and destroy the overall quality of life for local residents,” the group said. 

Speaking from the Whitney Plantation on Wednesday, National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans who is himself a descendant of a man who was enslaved at Whitney, said that the proposed construction would violate the area’s cultural resources, degrade its appeal to tourists and harm the health of Wallace’s residents. 

“We cannot allow this fragile, this embryonic asset to be negatively impacted in any fashion by any form of industrial development,” he said, referring to Whitney Plantation, now a museum dedicated to recognizing and honoring the lives of the enslaved people who worked there. 

While the Evergreen and Whitney Plantations already possess historic status, there’s reason to believe that the government could recognize the community of Wallace itself, comprised of the descendants of enslaved persons from the region, as a historic district, meaning the Corps would therefore need to pay special attention to the environmental justice and health-related effects of industrial construction in the area, according to the ACHP. 

“If the descendants of the formerly enslaved founders of this community stand to be the most impacted by the proposed undertaking, the issues frequently of concern under considerations of [environmental justice] converge with a federal agency’s responsibility to take into account effects on historic properties,” Loichinger said, adding that outside factors like local zoning ordinances and companies having purchased land for development don’t negate the Corps’ duties under Section 106. 

A group of Wallace residents, in addition to other groups like the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, have filed lawsuits with both St. John and the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, in order to prevent construction. Greenfield has participated as an “intervenor” in each case.

The Descendants Project – a non-profit founded by twin sisters Jo and Joy Banner, that advocates on behalf of the descendants of people once enslaved in Louisiana’s River Parishes– has sought to nullify a 32-year-old zoning ordinance on the parish’s books, which former Parish President Lester Millet, Jr., shepherded through the council in the 1990s as part of an extortion and money laundering scheme, according to the residents. 

​​At stake are the health, wealth and cultural landmarks of the residents of Wallace, all of which are at risk, the plaintiffs argue, because of the 1990 zoning change, which was enacted as part of a corrupt scheme, according to the lawsuit against St. John the Baptist Parish. 

The group wants Judge J. Sterling Snowdy, of the 40th Judicial District Court in LaPlace, to nullify Ordinance 90-27 – which rezoned the tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case as industrial –  given the corrupt nature in which it went into effect more than three decades ago, in 1990, the residents have argued. Snowdy recently shot down an attempt by the group to impose a temporary restraining order, thus allowing Greenfield to begin pile driving on the site, as part of its pre-construction activities. The pile driving also took place during Juneteenth, the federal holiday recognizing emancipation of enslaved people. 

The Army Corps’ increased attention in the matter is something of a revelation, Jo Banner told The Lens on Wednesday. The Corps has an obligation to review adverse effects to historic sites per Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.

“They’ve been very hands off with us throughout the whole process and kept us at arm’s length,” Banner said. So I’m pleasantly surprised that this is at least on their radar, and that they are paying attention to it, because it’s not something that they have necessarily shown to us.”

The Corps is in the initial stages of its 106 review, Poché told The Lens, and hasn’t yet notified the ACHP. 

“The ACHP, among others, will be requested to participate as a Consulting Party to the consultation,” Poché said. 

In a separate suit, lawyers from Tulane have argued on behalf of residents and community organizations that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources improperly granted Greenfield a coastal use permit exemption. Snowdy has indicated that he’ll submit a ruling in the matter sometime before the end of July. 

The Tulane Environmental Law Clinic also sent a letter to William Nethery of the Army Corps of Engineers on Friday, asking the Corps to prevent Greenfield from beginning construction activity until it’s received permits and authorizations. The Corps responded that the matter was outside of its jurisdiction, according to Banner. 

Meanwhile, there’s a certain momentum the residents of Wallace are experiencing in their opposition to the terminal, and they won’t concede the fight, Banner told The Lens. 

“Greenfield needs to find a more appropriate space for their project,” she said. “It’s time for all of these maneuverings to stop because we’re not going to stop .”

Joshua Rosenberg

Joshua Rosenberg covers the environmental beat for The Lens. Joshua is a Report for America corps member, and is working in collaboration with the Mississippi River Basin Ag and Water Desk. Prior to joining...