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A proposal for a massive grain export terminal in Louisiana has run into trouble

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There is a proposal to put a massive grain export terminal on a river bend in Louisiana. Critics say it's environmental racism, but others say they need the jobs. NPR has been reporting on this story for a while now, and John Burnett has this update.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Time was when developers, with the support of friendly state officials, could put a major industrial plant in the winding river corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, infamously nicknamed Cancer Alley, and there was little blowback. But those days are over. The proposal by a company called Greenfield Louisiana LLC to build one of the largest grain elevator complexes in America has kicked up a fire-ant mound of opposition.

JOY BANNER: This grain terminal is inappropriate for here because we would not be able to live in our neighborhood.

BURNETT: Joy Banner is a leading anti-grain-terminal activist who lives in the small Black community of Wallace, right next to the proposed site. Her great-great-grandmother was enslaved on a nearby plantation.

BANNER: So our quality of life would be absolutely destroyed. The traffic, the noise, the light pollution - we simply could not live here.

BURNETT: Recent studies by several federal and nonprofit groups validate her concerns that the $400 million facility, with its 54 grain silos, would disrupt the region's pastoral character that is dense with African American cultural history. A lot has happened since NPR first reported on this controversy two years ago. Last month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has to approve of projects on federal levees, concluded that lights, noise, traffic and vibrations would have adverse effects on four historic plantations and a Black cemetery. One of those plantations, Evergreen, is so well preserved it was used as a movie set.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FREE STATE OF JONES")

MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Newton Knight) From this day forward, we declare the land north of the Pascagoula Swamp to be a free state of Jones.

BURNETT: That was from "Free State Of Jones," released in 2016. And there's more. Both the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have identified this 11-mile stretch of the Great River Road in St. John the Baptist Parish as being a valued example of antebellum history. Over the summer, a state district judge ruled that the industrial zoning ordinance that covers the acreage was created illegally 30 years ago. That's all good news for activist Joy Banner.

BANNER: The community is becoming more educated that there are ways that the law protects us.

BURNETT: For its part, Greenfield is pushing back, touting how the project will create 100 well-paying jobs, respect environmental justice and be an engine for growth in the sleepy parish. It promises a state-of-the-art low-emission facility. Some residents believe their parish needs a big employer like Greenfield. Chad Roussel is a native who works as a TSA agent at the New Orleans airport, 30 miles away.

CHAD ROUSSEL: We have nothing in the community - no, you know, strong business. Yeah, there is tourism, but in reality, tourism doesn't benefit the local residents.

BURNETT: He concedes that he doesn't live near the proposed site, which would have truck, train and ship traffic and a conveyor belt as tall as the Louisiana Superdome. But Roussel, who's Black and whose family goes back generations here, says the parish should be known for more than sugar-cane fields and slave history.

ROUSSEL: I don't think any of us want to live in the past. And I think it's time to turn the page and move on.

BURNETT: Roussel supports the parish government's ongoing attempts to write a new zoning ordinance to allow industrial development next to Wallace. Meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers continues taking input from stakeholders. It will make a decision sometime next year whether to allow the grain elevator project in St. John the Baptist Parish to go forward.

For NPR News, I'm John Burnett in Wallace, La.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Burnett
John Burnett is a national correspondent based in Austin, Texas, who has been assigned a new beat for 2022—Polarized America—to explore all facets of our politically and culturally divided nation. Prior to this assignment, Burnett covered immigration, Southwest 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.