Wallace Residents Push Back Against Encroaching Industry

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Posted at 7:38 AM, May 11, 2023
If you ever need help with something you know the community will support you. So it's still a nice quiet community - Harriett Banner, Wallace Resident

Perched on the banks of the Mississippi River sits the quiet town of Wallace, a community in St. John the Baptist Parish, with less than a thousand residents (many of whom have had families living there for generations).

Harriett Banner has called Wallace home for 76 years, much like her parents did before her. Harriet can trace her lineage back to the enslaved peoples who were forced to work for one of the neighboring plantations.

"It was the whole family that grew up together," she said, sitting across the street from her childhood home. "The kids always played together and went over to stay at my grandparent's house. It was just always family."

Harriett raised her children in the same small town, and is still surrounded by family, but there's a potential new neighbor moving in that has Harriet and other residents concerned.

How would you feel if you lived here? I just can't imagine those three or four hundred foot towers standing right there. - Gail Zeringe, Wallace Resident

The Denver based company, Greenfield, has proposed a 60 acre lot right in the middle of Wallace as the site of an industrial grain export terminal. That would put it right in Harriet's family's backyard.

Jo Banner, Harriett's daughter, has spoken out about the terminal and isn't the only resident to do so, and according to residents company officials never informed them of their plans nor have they listened to what residents had to say.

While the company maintains that they've given residents the chance to speak, Jo is skeptical, saying she's never heard of anyone being able to offer any community input to Greenfield.

"The residents who are closest to it have had no input, there have been no requests to come to meetings. We've been totally left out," Jo said.

What drew red flags for us was the inconsistent zoning we were finding. There's nothing that corroborates the others. - Jo Banner, The Descendants Project

The Descendants Project, a non profit run by Jo and her twin sister, has filed a zoning lawsuit against the parish regarding the 60 acre property (which backs up to Jo's Cafe) that is being proposed.

The lawsuit is based on a series of discrepancies that surrounds one singular question: Is that land actually zoned for industrial use?

These discrepancies stem from an alleged corrupt deal that was made by then-Parish President Lester Millet, who served two terms in federal prison on money laundering, racketeering, and extortion charges for trying to switch the plot of land from residential to industrial in order to sell it to the plastics manufacturing company Formosa.

There is a zoning map from 1986 that has the plot of land listed as residential before the dealings of Millet; however, his map from 1994 has since gone missing.

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Unsigned copy of the zoning map from 1986, listing the tract of land as residential.

In it's place is a note from the Clerk of Court that states: "I noticed the original page, maybe a map, has been ripped out of the original act book. Positively anyone caught destroying records in the report or proven later will be charged criminally."

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Image of the note left from the missing map.

The same plot of land was then sold in 2006, this time zoned as a residential lot once again, although six years later another map emerges listing the land as industrial.

This new map, which pops up in 2012, has issues of its own. While the land is listed as industrial, since it is located next to a residential lot there should be a designated buffer zone between the residential and industrial. Since there was no buffer zone, the map was in violation of Parish Ordinance 90-27.

When this was brought to the attention of the Parish, Planning and Zoning Director Rene Pastorek said in a sworn statement the official map is kept via GIS online. That being said, the Parish's own website states that map is "not to be used or interpreted as a legal survey or legal document," which would seem to indicate it's not an official map.

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Screen shot of the St. John the Baptist Parish website listing the disclaimer that it "is not to be used or interpreted as a legal survey".

On the same website another map had been listed, this time marking the plot of land as residential, but when the parish was made aware of this during the lawsuit, it wasn't working on October 18 and 19, 2022, and has since been entirely removed from the website.

Where ever there was a plantation, you have burial grounds for the enslaved - Jo Banner, Descendants Project

The issues surrounding the lot aren't just related to zoning. as the land borders the Whitney Plantation, a former plantation turned museum with a focus on the enslaved.

"We know there's a high likelihood of burial grounds of the enslaved on that same property because there were three different plantations on the land on which they want to put the terminal." said Jo.

In December 2020, Greenfield did file an archaeological report that stated that no features were recorded and that no further archaeological reports were needed.

A separate forensics team, however, hired by the Whitney Plantation and the Descendants Project, countered that initial report; their report highlighted three separate anomalies around the Whitney Plantation and on the plot of land that they believe are burial grounds.

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Anomalies noticed by Forensic-Architecture that could indicate the presence of enslaved burial grounds.

After Greenfield filed their report, the news organizationPro Publica uncovered a whistle blower who was part of the forensics team hired by Greenfield who alleged that their report had been changed to fit the companies needs, and didn't reflect the original report.

This is something that Greenfield has denied.

Since Pro Publica's story, however, the Army Corps of Engineers have called Greenfield's initial report insufficient and joined the National Advisory Council of Historic Preservation in calling the original report into question.

The letter written by the Army Corps of Engineers didn't just address issues over historical preservation, but also raised concerns about the environmental impact the new terminal would have; a sentiment shared by residents.

We know what the current emissions have already caused, they've caused cancer. This is cancer alley. - Stephenie Aubert, Wallace Resident

Wallace is located on a stretch along the Mississippi River which is already full of heavy industry, and the consequences of all those emissions have given the area the nickname Cancer Alley.

"We have an increased risk of cancer, we're in the 95th percentile of cancer in the country already because of the pollution. So adding anything on top of that is dangerous." said Jo.

Greenfield says that their facilities are safe and have taken the steps necessary to minimize it's impact to the environment, but residents remain skeptical.

The company is promising jobs and economic development for the area, but in an area that is surrounded by industrial plants that argument isn't carrying much weight with various community members.

"Jobs are available in many of the industries around here, you see it constantly they're always advertising jobs," said Wallace resident Gail Zeringe.

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Aerial shot of pilings installed as pre-construction, with residences in the background

Pre-construction on the terminal has started _ with pilings being put in right behind Harriett Banner's house _ although work on the facility has paused as the courts work out some of the zoning issues.

Greenfield is still waiting on the Army Corps of Engineers to issue some of the necessary permits, but as of this writing the Corps of Engineers remains unsatisfied.
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