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.

The Army Corps of Engineers has not yet begun processing a permit application that Greenfield Louisiana LLC, the Colorado-based grain elevator company seeking to construct a large grain elevator in St. John the Baptist Parish, submitted for a separate project on the same tract of land: a clay excavating contract worth some $24 million to Greenfield that would, if executed, supply material to the Corps’ West Shore Lake Pontchartrain levee project. 

The Corps received a permit application from Greenfield in October for the clay excavation project, from which Greenfield intends to provide clay for the Corps’ $1.2 billion levee project — which is meant to protect the river’s east bank communities from flooding — Ricky Boyett, spokesman for the Corps told The Lens. But the Corps is not in a position to currently evaluate the borrow pit project, Boyett said, because of the potential “overlap” between the two projects. 

“We have not initiated processing of the application at this time because we need to hold conversations with Greenfield regarding any overlap this project may (or may not) have with the proposed grain elevator components,” Boyett said in an email on Nov. 22, and reaffirmed on Thursday. 

The Corps is already engaged in a review of the grain elevator project, per Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. 

Greenfield entered into a contract with a local firm, D Hayes Enterprise LLC on Oct. 3, in which D Hayes would excavate and remove over 8.6 million cubic yards of clay from the tract of land on which Greenfield plans to construct its grain elevator. D Hayes would pay Greenfield $2 for each ton excavated and removed, which would amount to approximately $24 million. 

The Port of South Louisiana and the St. John Parish’s Sheriff Office, which acts as the parish’s tax collector, also signed onto the contract. Under a tax abatement deal, Greenfield 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 produced by the group Together Louisiana. 

For his part, an executive with Greenfield said, among other things, the borrow pit project is unrelated to the grain elevator project. 

“While providing clay for the protection levees is common in the area, and not related to the Greenfield grain facility construction specifically or differentially, the sublessee will be required to comply with all applicable laws and permits before they are allowed to commence any work,” Cal Williams, Greenfield’s chief operating officer, said in an emailed statement. “We care about protecting our nearby communities from flooding and will support local efforts whenever we can.”

Williams also claimed that the site was certified by the Army Corps as recently as 2012 “to provide clay to the Parish levees.” Greenfield, in response to a follow-up question, did not provide details that would clarify to which project the statement referred. 

Boyett, for his part, was able to locate a listing that showed three contractor-furnished borrow sites in St. John the Baptist Parish that had been operational. But the listing for those sites ended in 2011, and was only for the construction of the greater New Orleans Hurricane and Storm Damage Risk Reduction System, and not for any other Corps or local project, he said on Thursday. 

A $400 million project

Greenfield bought the tract of land 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. A study produced by the economic development agency Greater New Orleans, Inc., found that the grain elevator would produce, among other things, 100 direct jobs.

The Corps has also raised concerns about the project’s potential to add to the area’s aggregate adverse health and environmental conditions. St. John the Baptist Parish, located in a heavily industrialized corridor, is one of several parishes in which community members and environmental groups have likewise expressed concerns about the overall health and environmental impacts of industrial activities. 

Since early September, the Corps has held two meetings under the purview of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, in order to evaluate the potential impacts the proposed grain elevator project might have on the area’s cultural resources. 

Meanwhile, Greenfield has initiated pre-construction activities on the site, which have included pile driving beams into the ground. The Corps has warned Greenfield that it is engaging in those activities at its own risk, given the fact that the Section 106 review remains ongoing. 

At no point during the Section 106 review process, though, did either Greenfield or the Corps mention that Greenfield had been pursuing a separate clay pit project that would involve the same tract of land, Lisa Jordan, director of the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic — who’s helping to represent the group Stop the Wallace Grain Terminal in its litigation opposing the project — told The Lens, which is something she found troubling. 

“To be sitting in a meeting that’s all about transparency and to not have this information be told to the participants is – it seems like it’s anathema to the entire point of the process,” Jordan said. 

In October, the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Coastal Management issued a coastal use permit exemption for the proposed clay pit. And the St. John Parish Council was planning to vote to permit the 214 acre clay pit during its Nov. 22 meeting.* Those plans changed, and the item was removed from the council’s agenda, after Jordan contacted the council to learn more about the proposal, which was billed as taking place on the “Formosa subdivision” – referring to Formosa Plastics, the Tawainese company that previously sought to build a factory on the same tract of land at issue in the Greenfield case.

But for Joy Banner, who’s a leading member of the Stop the Wallace Grain Terminal group and a co-founder of the Descendants Project group, the lack of communication speaks for itself. 

“The good news, I guess, about it is that it has been taken off the agenda,” she said during a Facebook livestream on Nov. 22. “However, it’s also very concerning that the minute that a question is raised about it, that it is taken off.”

The council did not respond to a request for comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the St. James Parish Council was set to consider a permit for the borrow pit. That error has been corrected.

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...