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Descendants Of Slaves Say This Proposed Grain Complex Will Destroy The Community

Grain silos along the Mississippi River in Southern Louisiana. Greenfield Louisiana plans on installing 54 silos and a conveyor structure almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty.
Visions of America/Education Images/Universal Image Group/Getty Images
Grain silos along the Mississippi River in Southern Louisiana. Greenfield Louisiana plans on installing 54 silos and a conveyor structure almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty.

Joy Banner, 42, stands at the edge of her hometown of Wallace, La., looking over a field of sugar cane, the crop that her enslaved ancestors cut from dawn to dusk, that is now the planned site of a major industrial complex. Across the grassy river levee, the swift waters of the Mississippi bear cargo toward distant ports, as the river has done for generations.

"This property is where the proposed grain elevator site would be set up right next to us," she says. "As you can see, we would be living in the middle of this facility."

A bitter fight has broken out between the powerful backers of this major new grain terminal on the Mississippi River in south Louisiana and the historic Black community that has been here on the fence line for 150 years. Charges of environmental racism are coming from her and fellow descendants of enslaved people, who believe the silo complex is an existential threat to the community of Wallace.

On this sunny Juneteenth, a couple dozen folks — mostly Banner's extended family — sit under a 300-year-old oak tree on the grounds of the Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe in Wallace. They eat roast beef sandwiches and peach cobbler, drink whisky and daiquiris, and enjoy the laid-back, rural life on this lazy bend of the mighty river.

But they fear change is coming.

Poor Black communities near toxic air pollution suffer greater cancer rates

"I have grown up here my whole life," says Banner, the community activist leading the fight against the grain terminal. "We don't want this way of life to be ruined." She and her twin sister, Jo Banner, are co-owners of the cafe.

Banner and the rest of this predominantly African American, unincorporated town of 1,200 are alarmed at the plans of Greenfield Louisiana. The company plans to put in 54 grain silos to store 4.6 million bushels of corn, wheat and soybeans. The grain would float down the Mississippi River from the Midwest on barges, get loaded onto cargo ships at a new Wallace terminal and then be delivered around the globe.

Supporters — from the governor's office to the local parish council — say the grain terminal will create jobs and expand international trade. But neighbors see a massive industrial installation with one structure standing as tall as the Statue of Liberty, operating 24/7 with constant truck and train traffic, machinery noise, and dust escaping when grain is loaded and unloaded.

Some 200 industrial and petrochemical plants are located along the twisting river between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

This industrial corridor has been nicknamed Cancer Alley. Study after study has shown that poor Black communities near toxic air pollution suffer greater rates of cancer in south Louisiana.

People at the Juneteenth picnic say that their air is already foul and that a giant grain elevator next door is bound to make things worse.

"You got red dust, black dust, white dust. All these plants, they all got dust," says Lawrence Alexis, 93, in a thick Creole accent. He's a lifelong Wallace resident and former sugar-refinery worker. "That thing they wanna put right there, I don't think it should be there, not close like that."

Lawrence Alexis, 93, a retired sugar refinery worker, worries that grain dust from the proposed facility will ruin the community he's lived in for his entire life.
John Burnett / NPR
Lawrence Alexis, 93, a retired sugar-refinery worker, worries that grain dust from the proposed facility will ruin the community he has lived in for his entire life.

CEO says they engaged community; residents say they were left in the dark

The proposed Greenfield Louisiana terminal will help, not harm, the community by diversifying the tax base and creating 100 jobs, says CEO Adam Johnson.

In a statement emailed to NPR, Johnson said the "new, state-of-the-art grain elevator will enable the efficient transport of agricultural goods from local farmers to consumers while significantly reducing environmental impacts."

A company fact sheet says Greenfield Louisiana will fully enclose conveyor systems, install dust-collection devices and minimize fugitive emissions during loading and unloading.

While acknowledging that "any kind of change is an adjustment," Johnson said Greenfield has "taken great care to engage the community on this project."

On this point, Wallace residents emphatically disagree. They tell NPR that they were kept entirely in the dark. Banner heard a rumor about a big grain terminal last summer, but she only learned concrete details of the project from a scientist who received a routine public notice from a federal agency four months ago.

Moreover, the St. John the Baptist Parish Council — the elected body that represents citizens of the parish, or county — pledged its support to the grain terminal 14 months ago, yet it never held a public meeting in Wallace to listen to residents' concerns or even put the issue on the council agenda, as residents requested.

In May 2020, seven members of the parish council sent letters to then-Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao urging her to approve a $25 million grant to help the Port of South Louisiana build a new dock in Wallace for the Greenfield terminal. None of the elected representatives would agree to repeated requests by NPR for interviews to discuss their support for the project.

Louisiana officials say the new terminal is good for all

"Parish President Jaclyn Hotard's priority is and will always be the health and safety of all residents in St. John the Baptist Parish," said a statement emailed to NPR by the parish's communications director. "The proposed Greenfield Development is a permitted use in this zoning district therefore the Parish's role is limited."

State officials have also lined up behind the new grain terminal. They say it fits into long-range plans to deepen the Mississippi River to 50 feet for larger ships, modernize port facilities and make Louisiana more globally competitive.

"That is agricultural commerce that is good for Louisiana, and it's good for Wallace," the state's agriculture commissioner, Mike Strain, said in an interview.

"The ports are the lifeblood of many different communities. And the Port of South Louisiana is currently the largest tonnage [grain] port in the United States. It provides local jobs and a boost to the local economy."

But residents of Wallace who spoke up at the Juneteenth event say they were made to feel invisible.

"You see this a lot going on in predominantly Black communities. They don't come to you. They don't have no town meetings with you," says Angelique Mitchell, a custodian with the school district and a Wallace resident whose house faces the proposed construction site. "We didn't even know this was gonna happen. One day we just saw some equipment comin' on the land and it was like, 'What is goin' on?' "

Angelique Mitchell, with her daughter, Ariel, says the community was kept in the dark about the giant grain terminal next door, and their own parish council refuses to put it on the agenda.
John Burnett / NPR
Angelique Mitchell, with her daughter, Ariel, says that the community was kept in the dark about the proposed giant grain terminal next door and that their own parish council refuses to put it on the agenda.

Residents worry about the effects of emissions on their health

Joy Banner's mother, Harriett, 75, agrees there was no transparency about the huge facility that wants to move in next door.

"To put the grain elevator in basically a Black neighborhood without us even knowing about it," she exclaims. "They never met with us to discuss it!"

Living in the middle of Cancer Alley, Wallace residents wonder what effect the terminal would have on their health.

Kimberly Terrell, a research scientist and the director of community outreach at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, who was first contacted by Wallace residents last year, says people tend to think of grain as nontoxic, compared with emissions from a petrochemical plant. "But the reality is that the dust that comes from these facilities is not pure grain," she says. "It's grain dust mixed with bacteria, bird droppings, rat droppings, insect parts, lots of things that could irritate your lungs and also potentially include toxins."

The law clinic is representing Wallace residents in their fight to stop the grain terminal. "The other big issue is that when you have dust in the air and you have facilities releasing toxic air pollution, that dust can essentially be a vehicle for toxics to get deep into your lungs and into your bloodstream," Terrell says.

But there are concerns that go beyond grain dust.

The founders of Wallace include emancipated slaves who had toiled on nearby sugar plantations. Their descendants' attachment to this soil is sacred and extends as deep as the roots of the ancient fern-covered live oaks.

The Banner sisters' Fee-Fo-Lay Cafe is named for the mysterious flickering lights in the swamp, said to be a witch who would haunt newborns. They use recipes for T-cakes and pralines handed down from their great-great grandmother, Mama Joe, who was born into slavery. And they still tell the legend of the Gown Man, said to have originated with a slave owner who dressed as a ghostly figure to frighten his slaves into obedience.

"These stories are an example of the way that we continue the networks that our ancestors sought to maintain," Joy Banner says. "It's sad that we are threatened by being pushed out of something that our ancestors wanted for us."

Critics say the grain terminal is another example of long-standing environmental racism

Some critics believe the proposed Wallace grain terminal is the latest example of a pattern of environmental racism that has occurred along the River Road industrial corridor over many years. In March, the U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, issued a reporton a proposal by Formosa Petrochemical Corp. to put a plastics plant in neighboring St. James Parish. A citizens group, made up mostly of people of color, came together to oppose the facility, just as people are doing in Wallace.

"This form of environmental racism poses serious and disproportionate threats to the enjoyment of several human rights of its largely African American residents," the report concluded.

Craig Colten, professor emeritus of geography and anthropology at Louisiana State University, has written about race, history and heavy industry along the River Road.

"I don't think industry saw a Black community as a viable community. I think they just ignored it. And to me that smacks of a type of racism," he says. Colten says it has been common for petrochemical corporations to buy former plantation property and put plants just across the fence line from freedmen's towns.

"There are many of these little linear villages that were a relic of plantations, and they were predominantly African American. And oftentimes, these plants are situated adjacent to those [fence-line communities] or very close to them," Colten says.

This year, in a speech about infrastructure and energy, President Biden uttered the phrase "Cancer Alley," a term loathed by Louisiana industry. In his speech, the president said that his administration will address environmental pollution that disproportionately impacts communities of color.

The planned grain elevator would not only be located next to Wallace but also be less than half a mile from the historic Whitney Plantation, an acclaimed museum complex that was the first in the South dedicated to the telling of the slave experience. Rather than gushing over the Big House with its Spanish Creole architecture and the graceful oak alley, as in traditional plantation tourism, instead docents at the Whitney explain the brutal labor conditions and the little-known 1811 slave revolt along River Road.

Grain complex "would be negative" for historic cultural tourism

The Whitney Plantation is on the National Register of Historic Places and Louisiana's African American Heritage Trail.

"We have a great opportunity for historic cultural tourism," says Banner, who is also communications director for the Whitney. "So there would be dust and grain and noise that would be part of the museum experience. It would be negative."

There is also the question of whether the 250-acre site selected for the Greenfield project contains the remains of slaves. The company quotes an archaeologist who says previous investigations have identified "no ancestral burial grounds ... within the proposed project area."

Banner disagrees, but she doesn't have proof. She says satellite photos show "anomalies" that may be forgotten gravesites on portions of three former plantations, including the Whitney, that now belong to Greenfield.

The principal behind the Wallace grain terminal is San Francisco activist investor Christopher Medlock James, who, through his public relations representative, declined multiple requests for an interview. James recently made headlines when his investment firm, Engine No. 1, achieved the unthinkable by installing three directors on the board of Exxon Mobil to pressure the company to reduce carbon emissions. Climate activists lauded him as a green David battling the petro Goliath.

His involvement in the controversial Greenfield Louisiana grain complex has not been as well publicized.

Greenfield opponents in Wallace say the permitting process in Louisiana has, up to now, shut them out. But later this year, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accepts public comments on Greenfield's application, they plan to speak up loudly: Don't let the grain terminal destroy this slave descendants' community.

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Corrected: July 7, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Kimberly Terrell first warned Joy Banner about the proposed project. In fact, Wallace, La., residents contacted Terrell first.
As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
Marisa Peñaloza is a senior producer on NPR's National Desk. Peñaloza's productions are among the signature pieces heard on NPR's award-winning newsmagazines Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as weekend shows. Her work has covered a wide array of topics — from breaking news to feature stories, as well as investigative reports.