NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Louisiana should reject a planned $9.4 billion plastics complex because at least one slave cemetery is on the grounds and others may be on recently purchased property that remains unstudied, activists say.
"I am concerned about the legacy of our ancestors," said Sharon Lavigne, founder and president of RISE St. James, a faith-based grass-roots group created to fight petrochemical pollution in St. James Parish, along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
The local affiliate of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group knew about the burial site 17 months ago but withheld the information until it was revealed in documents obtained through public records requests, Lavigne said during a press teleconference Wednesday.
She called that gut-wrenching.
"This is hallowed ground," she said.
Information about the potential burial grounds is in documents made available to the public during the public comment period and throughout the permitting process, said a statement from Janile Parks, spokeswoman for FG LA LLC, the corporation created to build the 14-plant complex.
The company respects the one burial ground it has found and is working with state officials to protect it, Parks said.
The land where four human burials were found was probably a slave cemetery because there were no records of it and the owners of the plantation in question were not buried on their land, according to an archaeological survey made for the company. However, the bones might be those of Civil War soldiers, because the plantation "was the focus of intense fighting" during the war, the archaeologists reported.
Once its location was known, the company fenced the area, Parks said in an emailed statement. The company will comply with all state and federal requirements to ensure the site remains protected, the statement said.
The likely site of a second cemetery was apparently destroyed when a former owner dug a 10-foot-deep (3-meter-deep) "borrow" pit to get dirt for construction in another area, according to the documents.
The remaining cemetery takes up about 1.4 acres (0.6 hectares) of a 2,319-acre (940-hectare) site, according to the documents, made public Wednesday as attachments to a letter from RISE St. James and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which held the teleconference with the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign.
The Center for Constitutional Rights filed the request in mid-November, after RISE "got word that there were suspected sites along that property," said Pam Spees, senior attorney for the center.
The current cemetery map is larger than the one originally drawn up by archaeologists.
"We are concerned that may be other sites out there, because every time they go back they find more," Spees said.
The Formosa project's 14 air quality permits are pending at the state Department of Environmental Quality. The state should reject them all, Spees said.
Greg Langley, press secretary for the Department of Environmental Quality, said he cannot comment about permits that are being considered. However, he said that cemeteries have not impeded past projects. The remaining cemetery is in a buffer zone where Formosa didn't plan any construction, he noted.
"They have to be sure there's access for family members or visitors ... and they have to maintain the cemetery," he said.
The original surveys for FG LA did not find any burial grounds. State archaeologist Chip McGimsey said the company was told to check again after someone doing unrelated research emailed him a copy of an 1878 map showing graveyards on the Acadia and Buena Vista plantations, now part of the Formosa site.
He said state law protects undocumented burial grounds, but that wouldn't require scrapping the entire project.
Once one is located, McGimsey said, his office works with the landowner and contractors, asking, "Can it stay in place? Does it need to be removed and reburied somewhere else?"
McGimsey said the decision is up to the landowner. "Excavaction of human remains can be a very time-consuming and expensive process," he noted. "Most landowners find it easier to go around and leave them in place. That's what we would prefer. That's been their resting ground, and if at all possible it will remain so."
The state offered about $1.5 billion in tax breaks to persuade Formosa to locate in Louisiana.