A rendering of the proposed grain elevator in the background with the Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe in the foreground, commissioned by the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic. Courtesy of Jo Banner.

Residents of St. John the Baptist Parish notched an important legal victory Monday in their battle opposing the construction of a large grain terminal near their residential community, which they argue will harm their health, their cultural resources and the environment. 

The Louisiana Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal affirmed a decision issued by Judge J. Sterling Snowdy of the 40th Judicial District Court in LaPlace, who ruled this spring that the residents could move forward in their attempt to nullify the zoning ordinance that would allow for the construction of the grain terminal. Greenfield Louisiana LLC, a Colorado-based company seeking to construct the grain terminal, argued that Snowdy erred in allowing the suit to proceed.

The company claimed that the plaintiffs failed to satisfactorily demonstrate that the ordinance, which changed a tract of land from residential to industrial zoning, was null based on a violation of state or federal law or the parish charter. But Snowdy noted that the plaintiffs were arguing that the zoning change violated parish land use regulations, and that was a legitimate basis to bring legal action. The appeals court judges agreed. 

The appellate court’s opinion was dated June 29, but due to an oversight at the clerk’s office, was only released to the parties and to the public on Monday. 

The suit before Snowdy is ongoing. Had the appellate court sided with Greenfield and rejected the causes of action brought by the Descendants Project — a nonprofit led by twin sisters Jo and Joy Banner that advocates on behalf of the descendants of people once enslaved in Louisiana’s River Parishes — then the case would have effectively ended, pending an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. 

“The fact they felt the need to go beyond simply denying the writ and instead to write this ruling agreeing with Judge Snowdy’s analysis is really important,” Pam Spees, senior staff attorney at the Center For Constitutional Rights who’s helping to represent the Descendants Project, told The Lens.

“They are speaking to the merits in a way, but we still have to prove our case,” she said.

Judges Susan M. Chehardy, Stephen J. Windhorst and Hans J. Liljeberg of the Fifth Circuit sat on the panel and wrote the opinion. 

For its part, Greenfield sought to minimize the importance of the appellate court’s opinion. 

“This decision was procedural, and we look forward to the ultimate dismissal of the plaintiffs case when the facts are heard,” a Greenfield spokesperson wrote in a statement. The company will continue working with the local community “to bring good paying green jobs and economic revival to the West Bank,” the statement read.  

‘The appellate court has given the judge a green light’

Greenfield bought the tract of land at issue in 2021 for $40 million. The company plans to build an enormous grain elevator worth more than $400 million on the property that would include 54 grain silos and a conveyor belt, among other infrastructure. The Descendants Project sued the parish — located in the so-called Chemical Corridor along the Mississippi River Baton Rouge and New Orleans —  in November in order to nullify the zoning ordinance upon which the construction would rely. 

The company has already begun piledriving and other work on the property, although the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to issue a permit for the project. The Corps said in June that it’s questioning the validity of a “cultural resource survey” that Greenfield submitted. 

The Descendants Project ultimately wants Snowdy to nullify Ordinance 90-27 — which rezoned the tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case as industrial  —  given the highly corrupt nature in which it went into effect more than three decades ago, in 1990, the residents have argued.

A federal jury determined in 1996 that former St. John the Baptist Parish President Lester Millet, Jr. engaged in an extortion and money-laundering scheme when he helped shepherd through the controversial ordinance, which would have allowed a Tawainese company, Formosa Plastics, to build a factory on the same tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case. Even though Millet was sentenced to almost five years in jail for his actions and the Formosa plant was never built, the ordinance —which rezoned the area and allowed industrial sites to be located as close as 300 feet away from residential zones — remains on the parish’s books. 

The Descendants Project initially filed suit against St. John Parish, but in December, Greenfield intervened as a defendant. The company and the parish government asked Snowdy to dismiss the suit. Greenfield filed its appeal after Snowdy ruled for the plaintiffs in April. 

The case had experienced something of a pause with the appeal pending, but the action should soon be back in full swing, Spees said. 

“The appellate court has given the judge a [green light], and we look forward to getting back into court to bring an end to this unlawful ordinance that has been hanging over the heads of people in Wallace for far too long,” she said. 

The parish did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The same company, the same judge, a different case

Meanwhile, a separate legal challenge to the grain elevator was shot down in a ruling late last month by the same trial court judge.

Snowdy issued a ruling finding that the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) was correct in determining, in August 2021, that the project does not require a state coastal use permit, which is often required for major projects in Louisiana’s coastal zone that could impact coastal waters. 

The DNR exercised its discretion in neither an arbitrary nor a capricious manner in determining that a coastal use permit  is not required for part of Greenfield’s project, and that the remainder of its activity won’t have a direct and significant impact on coastal waters, Snowdy said. 

“We appreciate the concerns that were brought, but DNR feels that our staff followed the rules and laws in making their initial decisions and the court has affirmed that,” Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the agency told The Lens. 

Residents of St. John the Baptist Parish, including the community group Stop the Wallace Grain Elevator, sued the DNR in January, arguing, among other things, that the agency violated the state constitution by failing to fulfill its role as a public trustee, failed to follow coastal use guidelines, and improperly failed to hold a public hearing. 

“I’m disappointed in the decision because I had hoped the record was clear that in forcing the project to fit under exemptions that we believe were not intended to be used in that way, DNR avoided conducting a robust review of the many impacts of Greenfield’s grain terminal,” Lisa Jordan, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, who’s helping to represent the Stop the Wallace Grain Terminal group, told The Lens via email. 

Snowdy also concluded, among other things, that DNR “followed the law regarding the procedure of a public hearing discussion,” even though “the administrative record is silent” as to why the agency chose not to hold such a hearing. 

“It’s always a red flag when an agency subverts and limits effective public participation, as DNR did here by refusing to grant a public hearing and not responding to a single written public comment,” Jordan told The Lens. “The public’s right to meaningful participation in agency decisions that will affect their lives for generations is a bedrock principle of democracy and an important curb on agency power and agency capture by industry.”

Greenfield applauded Snowdy’s decision. 

“The court’s decision is a win for the people of St. John Parish, especially the Westbank who will benefit from the jobs, opportunity, engagement and revenue that Greenfield will bring to the community,” said Louis E. Buatt, Legal Counsel for Greenfield Louisiana, told The Lens in a written statement. 

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...