CONVENT, La. (CN) — The high school was closed, the land sold to a Chinese industrial company that sold it for $100 to the Koch Brothers, then the post office was closed. Welcome to Cancer Alley.
A 2014 map made no note of churches or schools in the area, as if they had been removed, and residents learned of a new amendment that specified their land cannot be subdivided. They say they have no idea when these changes were made.
The areas, known as Districts 4 and 5, are predominantly black communities in “Cancer Alley,” along the Mississippi River in St. James Parish. As of 2014, these communities have gone from being zoned as Residential to, ambiguously, Residential/Future-Industrial.
The designations, critics point out, came under the tenure of a parish president and commissioner, both of whom were indicted on charges of fraud in 2016 for favoring industry. Louisiana has parishes instead of counties.
St. James Parish, pop. 22,100, is midway between New Orleans and Baton Rouge in an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River called “Cancer Alley” because of its many petrochemical plants. Environmental groups and local residents have taken to calling the area “Death Alley” because they say that if all the industries proposed move in, that is what it will be.
Ninety percent of District 5 is black; District 4 is 65 percent black; eight refineries already operate in the area with seven more proposed or under construction.
In whiter areas around the parish, stricter land-use designations are in place and in at least two instances growth proposals from industry have been denied.
Public records requests were filed this year by environmental groups and local residents concerned about “secrecy” and “deceit” from parish officials in District 5’s land-use designation, which they say is paving the way for rapid industrialization.
Records, though sparse, indicate that two land-use maps for the parish, one released in 2011 for public input and the final map put into effect in 2014 were conflated. The maps are nearly identical, but the meanings behind the maps, the groups say, are opposite.
While the 2011 map was a result of guidance from a professional land-use firm, two years of research and numerous public meetings, the 2014 map apparently was drawn behind closed doors, without minutes, and after only two public meetings, one of which was attended by just 18 people.
Because very little is on record, little is known about how the land-use designations came to be, but minutes from one of the two public meetings held on the second map, from March 19, 2014, shed some light, environmentalists and residents say.
During that sparsely attended meeting, parish Councilman Jason Amato mentioned “smart growth” a handful of times and spoke of a situation when an industry chose to move into nearby Ascension Parish over St. James Parish.
Amato said he asked the industry why and was told: “You’ve got land, but you don’t have a plan. We can’t afford to spend investors’ money and then two weeks later we got something else that’s undesirable that comes next to our facility.
“And we’ve seen that,” Amato continued. “We’ve seen that, last year a company that’s been a good neighbor to the community for years and years and years and yet we didn’t have a plan and we have a subdivision built next to it. …
“We talk about how do we, how do we grow, how do we keep our young people, our young residents in the community. It’s easy. Go ride down in … District 3, Belleview Subdivision. Lots of young families. They’ll tell you. Man, it’s a restricted subdivision and they feel pretty secure their property’s going to be valued from here on out, for 20 years plus that we can’t put an industry next to them. You know, so it’s give and take but we do that through smart growth.”
At this point, Amato apparently indicated the new map — the one with the 4th and 5th Districts zoned as Residential/Future-Industrial rather than just Residential, and from which the schools and churches in the 5th District had been removed.
“The map, you look at the map and it all, it goes back to what Mr. Gerald just said,” Amato said. “It allows us to make smart decisions. We’re going to work together and we know that we can make smart decisions.”
The new map came under the tenure of St. James Parish President Timmy Roussel and parish Planning Commissioner Blaise Gravois, both of whom were indicted on nearly identical fraud charges in 2016 for favoring industry. (A local judge threw the five-charge indictment against Gravois out; but a state appeals court reinstated them.)
Gravois owns a construction company and was at one time a commissioner for the Port of South Louisiana, one of the busiest working ports in the Western Hemisphere, which encompasses 54 miles along the Mississippi River. In the first quarter of this year alone the port exported 12 million tons of petrochemicals and 15 million tons of crude oil.
Gravois was appointed as commissioner to the port in 2012 by then-Governor Bobby Jindal after his uncle, Gregory Gravois, who had held the title, died of cancer, according to public records.
The 2011 land-use map for the area shows Districts 4 and 5 in beige and with the Residential designation.
The 2014 map shows the same beige area but on that map the color has the opposite meaning, environmentalists said Wednesday.
“Part of the reason we think it’s so deceitful is they used the same color designation” in the final report, said Justin Kray, a New Orleans-based cartographer and land-use specialist who co-wrote a report released Thursday in conjunction with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental health and justice organization that works with communities near the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants.
The report, titled “A Plan Without People: Why the St. James Parish 2014 Land Use Plan Must Be Changed,” details in 20 pages of explanation, maps and graphs the various aspects of 2014 land-use map that appear “deceitful.”
Kray said he once asked Blaise Gravois over the phone about the difference between the two maps, to which Gravois replied: “Well, what’s the difference?”
Anne Rolfes, founder of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, said during a news briefing Wednesday: “What we were trying to understand through the public record is who made these changes and how did they happen?”
Sharon Lavigne, a resident who runs Rise St. James, a coalition against the area’s expanding petrochemical industry, underscored during Wednesday’s telephonic conference that neither she nor her neighbors in the 5th District had any warning that the land-use designation for their properties were changing, or that the high school was being closed and sold, or that the post office was moving out of town — or any of the other things that she says are a result of the changed land-use designation — had even taken place, until the changes had been completed.
Parish officials often say residents in Districts 4 and 5 want to share their neighborhoods with industry and were all for the changes.
”We didn’t know,” Lavigne said. “So how could the people have wanted this, if they didn’t know?”
The report released Thursday calls for an investigation into the “murky process by which the 2014 Land Use Plan was created,” revocation of a construction permit issued since to a methanol plant, and for reopening of an evacuation route that had been used for 30 years before the 2014 plan caused it to close.
Parish officials did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.