After 'insufficient' report, Corps to take closer look at grain terminal’s impact on historic sites
A report conducted by a company looking to construct a grain terminal in St. John the Baptist Parish is facing increased scrutiny by federal agencies and will need to be redone to assess how the $479 million project would affect nearby historic sites.
On Friday, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers spokesman Ricky Boyett said the agency is concerned whether the cultural resources survey contracted by Greenfield Louisiana, LLC meets the rigor required for federal permitting. And they’re not alone.
Historic preservation advocacy groups and the state’s own Historic Preservation Office have expressed concerns over the past year about how the 54-silo, 275-foot-tall grain elevator would impact two nearby plantations: Whitney and Evergreen. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places, and Evergreen is a National Historic Landmark.
Last week, the federal agency charged with advising Congress and president on national historic preservation policy, known as the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation, added its voice in a letter, requesting more information on how the Corps will address challenges to the survey submitted by the company.
“One of the leading concerns is that the evaluation done by the applicant is insufficient,” Boyett said. “And we agree.”
That letter came a month after ProPublica, an investigative news site, reported the author of the company’s cultural resources survey originally found that the grain elevator would have an adverse effect on historic properties — a conclusion that didn’t make it into the final draft. ProPublica reported that a rewrite came after the company refused to accept the report’s initial findings, resulting in the author’s resignation after seven years with the environmental consulting firm.
The news report and correspondence from the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic spurred the federal advisory council’s inquiry. The federal body often advises the Corps and other agencies as they move through the Section 106 process, which reviews a proposed project’s impact on historic properties, according to agency staff.
The review is mandated by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, which requires that projects funded or permitted by the federal government account for impacts to historic properties and craft a plan to minimize them. If plans can’t be altered to avoid harm, government bodies like the Corps can deny permits.
It’s another hurdle as Greenfield faces several other ongoing challenges to their project, including opposition from the National Urban League and local environmental groups. Last Friday, its legal team returned to court after a St. John the Baptist-based nonprofit, The Descendants Project, sued Louisiana’s Department of Natural Resources over its decision to issue a coastal use permit without holding a public hearing.
Joy Banner, a Wallace resident and The Descendants Project’s co-founder, said her group has no plans to stop and would go after every permit issued if they have to.
“All the ways in which these developments impact us, we’re using all of those ways to fight,” she said.
The same nonprofit is also in a lawsuit against the parish government, claiming that the land slated for development was illegally rezoned for industrial use in the 1990s and should return to residential status. That rezoning was part of a former parish president’s corrupt bid to profit off an industrial plant he tried to lure to the same plot — a plan that similarly divided the small, rural community over conflicts of health, heritage and jobs.
The 248-acre piece of farmland sits in Wallace, and the grain elevator would stand within a few hundred feet of houses in a nearby, predominantly Black neighborhood. Like many settlements along the Mississippi River in the industrialized region between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, it was started by formerly enslaved Black residents who have passed their property and homes down over generations.
In its letter, the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation argues that the effects on the neighborhood itself might fall not only under the Corps’ environmental justice considerations for a permit but also preserving the area’s culture beyond the architecture or landscape.
“There's been an evolution through the years to recognize that for a lot of properties, the site's significance derives from the continued usage of that site,” said Jaime Loichinger, the assistant director of the Advisory Council’s Office of Federal Agency Programs.
While health impacts aren’t always considered in the Section 106 process, the letter, written by Loichinger and her colleague John Eddins, said that would change if the community of Wallace “should be considered an historic district or a contributing element of a larger historic district.”
If so, the Corps would need to know how the landscape would be altered if community members decide to relocate due to the project’s “long-term and cumulative effects” on health or quality of life.
The grain elevator has already received a minor source air permit from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and could emit as much as 37 tons of fine particulate matter per year. At less than 2.5 micrometers wide, these particles can be inhaled, enter the bloodstream and cause heart and lung issues in people with chronic exposure.
Greenfield officials have stated they expect the grain terminal to emit even less particulate matter, thanks to its state-of-the-art design with enclosed conveyors to limit the amount of dust that escapes when transporting the grain to barges for export. The company has also hired a local doctor, who backs the project’s safety.
Currently, the majority of Wallace falls in the local River Road Historic District, and Brian Davis, the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation’s executive director, and Banner are discussing a larger protected area with the National Park Service. But securing a designation can take almost two years.
This year, Davis’ group listed the 11-mile stretch of St. John’s west bank, which includes Wallace and Edgard, as one of the most endangered historic places in the state — in part due to the grain elevator, but also the dock that the company and Port of South Louisiana hope to construct on the batture.
“This is one unusual stretch of this half of a parish that, because of that lack of a port, has not been impacted by heavy industry yet,” Davis said. “This has a potential to change the landscape of west St. John Parish tremendously in the next 20 years.”
In response to the federal agency’s letter, Greenfield Chief Operations Officer Cal Williams said “protecting historic and cultural resources is a priority in our discussions with the Corps of Engineers. We take our responsibilities as stewards of this land very seriously.”
Williams said Tuesday that the company has thoroughly investigated the site’s history and developed plans to stop construction if any cultural resources are found.
A push by opponents to halt any pile driving or digging on the site due to concerns over unmarked slave burial grounds or artifacts failed this month, and a District Court judge granted the company the right to proceed with permitted construction activities.
Williams didn’t address whether these challenges have altered the project’s timeline. However, federal infrastructure grant applications submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation by the Port of South Louisiana and Greenfield suggest they no longer expect to have the project completed by 2024, instead aiming to have it operating in the spring of 2025.
The company has said it has a “local first” policy, planning to fill its 60 to 100 jobs with St. John residents, create a workforce development program with the local community college and support high school graduates with scholarships, among other initiatives. Slowing the project down, it argues, hurts the community.
Boyett said the Corps will talk with the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation this week, and send a formal response shortly after with plans to involve consulting parties to determine what a new cultural resources survey must include. Then, Greenfield will be required to submit a new report.
Loichinger said her agency’s next steps will depend on conversations with the Corps.
“Section 106 is really most effective when, rather than jumping to the end of the process, you go through the process. That you build on the information that you develop in each step,” she said. “We'll be making sure that those steps are followed properly on our end with the Corps.”
This story has been updated to reflect that a portion of Wallace' is included in the River Road Historic District.