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Residents in a mostly Black Louisiana town seek zoning justice to keep industry out

Following the mysterious disappearance of a local zoning map in a mostly Black community in rural Louisiana, new maps emerged that appear to show a long-time residential district as being zoned for industry.

WALLACE, La. (CN) — A rural Louisiana politician was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for, among other corruption, rezoning a local residential area to be industrial in the 1990s, and now, decades later, his fraudulent zoning changes have suddenly resurfaced with a massive industrial facility already deemed by the Occupational Safety and Health Organization to pose a “high hazard” threat ready to break ground within 300 feet of some residents in a mostly Black neighborhood.

On Tuesday, the Descendants Project, an organization formed to advocate for the descendants of people once enslaved along the Mississippi River in Southern Louisiana, asked the district court for St. John the Baptist Parish to declare the decades-old rezoning ordinance null and void and sought removal of changes made by the illegal ordinance from all maps and records.

The suit stems from the 1996 rezoning of a large tract of rural land to industrial use in the small, mostly Black and mostly residential town of Wallace, Louisiana. The town, population 755, lies 40 miles west of New Orleans in the heart of a fertile area along the Mississippi River once filled with plantations and now dubbed “cancer alley” because of the heavy industrial presence and high cancer rate among residents.

Following the change to zoning, former St. John the Baptist Parish council president Lester Millet Jr. was sentenced to almost five years in prison for his role in forcing residents from their land to help — for large sums of money — the Taiwanese company, Formosa, which has recently become notorious among local residents as well as attorneys general nationwide for its attempts to build a massive plastics complex in the same area. In the 1990s, prior to his conviction, Millet sought to help Formosa build a rayon pulp factory next to Wallace.

Despite Millet Jr.’s imprisonment, the illegal ordinance remained in place. The land continued to be primarily used for sugarcane farming in the decades since then, but now a company out of Denver, Colorado, called Greenfield Louisiana, is seeking to build a massive heavy-industrial grain terminal on the same spot Formosa was interested in in the 1990s. 

The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of the Descendants Project, which was founded by two sisters, Jo and Joy Banner, who were raised in the same home where their family has lived for more than a century.

“I remember my parents telling us that we were going to have to move,” Jo Banner said in a press release Tuesday. “They were told there was nothing they could do, and the parish was taking our land. We didn’t think we had a choice. This is a miscarriage of justice that is still causing us tremendous trauma, and it needs to be corrected. We need peace.” 

“If built, the grain terminal would follow a common pattern in which hazardous industrial facilities are placed in or near Black communities, a practice central to environmental racism," the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a press release Tuesday. "People who live in areas with toxic air pollution suffer higher rates of cancer and other diseases, and these people are disproportionately Black.”

The grain elevator would consist of 54 grain silos and a conveyor structure. OSHA has designated the facility a “high hazard industry” that can expose individuals to “numerous serious and life-threatening hazards,” the lawsuit said.

The Banners’ lawsuit says the proposed terminal would endanger their community in several ways. To begin with, grain dust from the facility would exacerbate the already poor air quality, especially for residents whose homes would be less than 300 feet from the proposed, towering facility.

“The potential psychic harm to residents could be as severe as the physical. Some parts of the facility will rise as high as 300 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty, blocking sunlight and views, and the constant noise would disrupt the peaceful rhythms of this rural community,” the release from the Center for Constitutional Rights said.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday asserts that ever since the official parish map was discovered to be missing in 2012, other zoning maps have popped up and have been claimed as official, despite that each contains conflicting zoning designations for Wallace. Some of the maps show Wallace as being designated for industrial use, but in ways that would violate zoning ordinances.

“Further confusing matters, a different map linked from another part of the Parish’s website as the ‘official zoning map,’ showed the entire Wallace Tract to be zoned as R-1/residential, not heavy or light industrial,” the lawsuit says. 

The Descendants Projects held a press conference Tuesday outside the St. John the Baptist Parish courthouse after the lawsuit was filed.

“I cannot imagine leaving, but I cannot imagine staying,” Gail Zeringue, a Wallace resident, said during the conference.

“The Descendants Project is reaching back into the past to right one of the wrongs that has been done of the community of Wallace and prevent the harm that lurks over them again,” Pam Spees, Senior Staff Attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights who was with the Descendants Project outside the courthouse Tuesday said in the press release from the Center for Constitutional Rights.

“Their efforts to get the parish council to respond to their concerns have fallen on deaf ears," she said. "The only option left to them was to take them to court. The illegalities surrounding the adoption of this ordinance were so extreme and pervasive that that rendered it null and void.”

Named defendants in the lawsuit are St. John the Baptist Parish and its council members.

Parish council members did not immediately reply Tuesday to a request for comment. Council Member Kurt Becnel reportedly told a news site recently, “I do not talk about the grain elevator to no one.”

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