The consulting firm hired by Greenfield Louisiana LLC, the Colorado-based company seeking to construct a large grain terminal in St. John the Baptist Parish, accessed restricted private property at the Whitney Plantation in order to snap photographs for a so-called viewshed analysis – a method of determining which physical features can be seen from a given vantage point – according to a member of the Whitney’s leadership team.
The pictures of Whitney Plantation that the consulting firm, Ramboll Group, presented during two separate meetings held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under the purview of the National Historic Preservation Act, could only have been taken from property that’s off-limits to visitors, Ashley Rogers, executive director at the Whitney Plantation, told The Lens. Rogers called out the issue during both meetings (held in early September and early November), according to multiple people present. The Whitney Plantation is now a museum that focuses on the lives of the enslaved people who lived and worked there.
Greenfield bought the tract of land, which runs diagonally across the back of the Whitney property, in 2021 for $40 million. The company plans to build an enormous grain elevator on the property, worth more than $400 million, that would include 54 grain silos, a conveyor belt, railroad infrastructure and a dock. (Under a tax abatement deal, the company has agreed to transfer ownership to the Port of South Louisiana — a public agency that does not pay property taxes — in exchange for annual payments in lieu of taxes, an agreement that could cost St. John Parish more than $200 million over 30 years, according to an analysis by the group Together Louisiana.)
Greenfield hired Ramboll to act as its agent throughout the permitting process, a spokesman for the Corps previously told The Lens. Ramboll, in turn, subcontracted Gulf South Research Corporation (GSRC) to conduct a cultural resource survey on the proposed location of the grain elevator project in order to investigate whether construction would harm nearby sites of historical significance.
GSRC’s report, submitted in October 2021 to state and federal agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, as part of Greenfield’s permitting process, said that the company found no evidence of any unmarked graves. The finding, however, came under public scrutiny after a whistleblower account emerged, as reported by ProPublica, claiming Greenfield improperly pressured GSRC to alter its true findings.
In late June, about a month after ProPublica published its investigation, the Corps publicly stated that it found the report submitted by GSRC to be insufficient. In rejecting the survey, the Corps raised concerns about the project’s potential contributions to the area’s aggregate health and environmental conditions.
Representatives from Ramboll told Rogers after the first meeting, when she approached them to ask how they accessed the property, that the firm chose to purchase tour tickets in order to access Whitney Plantation, according to Rogers. No one from Ramboll notified the staff at Whitney beforehand that they were planning to visit the property, she said.
The pictures demonstrate that someone was on the property on separate occasions before and after Hurricane Ida — the Category 4 storm that formed in August 2021 and destroyed a fence at Whitney — Rogers said. The Lens has reviewed several of the pictures in question.
“Even if they paid both times that they visited, they still were accessing a part of the property that is definitely not supposed to be accessed by visitors,” she told The Lens.
A spokesperson for Greenfield did not directly dispute Rogers’ account. Greenfield expects its consultants and partners to “comport themselves professionally and always with the core ethos of Greenfield in mind,” the spokesperson said.
“Ramboll has indicated its employee took pictures on a ticketed walking tour in 2021 and believed all areas visited were open to the public,” the spokesperson said. “The purpose was collection of information to ensure an accurate representation of views from the plantation, as we all work to advance in thoughtful development that respects its surroundings.”
The underlying problem there, however, is that because no one from Ramboll coordinated with the staff at Whitney, the firm had no way of knowing exactly which concerns were top of mind for the leadership team at Whitney, Rogers told The Lens.
“The viewshed was something that I was really concerned with from the very beginning,” she said. “That section of west St. John is one of the last remaining spots where you get this uninterrupted view of the sugar fields – and I think it’s really effective for our visitors to imagine the vastness of that agricultural production,” she said.
“What is that disruption of those uninterrupted miles of sugarcane fields? That’s the part I wanted to know what’s going to happen with,” Rogers said. “But they didn’t analyze that because they didn’t know.”
Ramboll did not respond to a request for comment.
Generally speaking, Ramboll’s actions have the potential to cast a pall over the Section 106 proceedings, required by the NHPA, Brian Davis, executive director of the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, told The Lens. Both LTHP and the Whitney are consulting parties to the Corps’ 106 review process.
“That creates mistrust, I think, between the parties, when they see photographs that are obviously from their site in areas that obviously were not open to the public,” Davis said. “And so it’s very underhanded – it just gives a sense of mistrust.”
The leadership team at Whitney is also concerned about the issue of liability as it relates to visitors wandering into unauthorized areas of the property, Rogers said.
“We have a large property – we have over 200 acres, and we have a pretty small area where visitors are allowed,” she said. “And we have to do a good bit of crowd management to try to get people to stay in that area,” she said, adding that if someone travels off the path and gets hurt, the plantation could be liable for those injuries.
By the same token, Rogers would have been more than happy to welcome Ramboll’s employees to Whitney, had she been contacted ahead of time, she said. But knowing they came without even announcing themselves has left something of a bad taste in her mouth, she said.
If a cultural resources management firm “is needing to access my site, but is not communicating with me and is instead sneaking on and taking pictures, that doesn’t make me feel like it was a neutral process at all,” she said. “It seems like your best interest is with Greenfield.”
“And if that’s what happened for something as light as viewshed analysis, which I recognize is not the most critical thing here, then I’m really concerned about the areas that have been identified on that property that we believe may be ancestral burial grounds,” she said.
“It seems like bad-faith to me.”