San Francisco ‘Green’ Investor Christopher James relying on decades-old, corrupt rezoning to build massive grain terminal that would threaten health and safety of Black community
December 16, 2021, St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana ‒ Today, a district court judge ruled that an organization that advocates for the descendants of enslaved people may pursue its lawsuit challenging an illegal rezoning ordinance that would allow the construction of a massive grain terminal in a historic Black community near the Mississippi river in the heart of “Cancer Alley.” The ruling sets up a legal showdown over an ordinance that sent a former parish president to prison for corruption decades ago yet remains on the books.
San Francisco-based investor Christopher James, celebrated elsewhere for “impact investing” and environmentalism, is relying on the ordinance in question to build a massive grain terminal in Wallace, an unincorporated town of 1,245 forty miles east of New Orleans. Wallace residents see it as a grave threat not only to their health and way of life but to the very existence of their community, which contains two landmarked former plantations and possible burial sites of enslaved people.
“We are fighting a toxic combination of corporate greed and environmental racism,” said Jo Banner, who founded the Descendants Project with her sister Joy. “We will not stop until this deadly combo is eradicated and our community is free from the bonds of an injustice that has held it hostage for over thirty years.”
The lawsuit, Descendants Project v. St. John the Baptist Parish, filed by lawyers from the Center for Constitutional Rights and local counsel Bill Quigley, stems from the corrupt dealings of Lester Millet Jr., a former parish president who, in 1990, pushed through an ordinance that rezoned a large tract of rural land for heavy industrial use. He engaged in money laundering, extortion, and threats of expropriation to coerce residents into selling land to Formosa, a Taiwanese corporation that sought to build a factory on the site. Millet Jr., who died earlier this year, was sentenced to five years in prison.
Despite Millet Jr.'s conviction, the illegal ordinance remains on the books, providing an opening to Greenfield Louisiana, which has drawn up plans to build a 36-silo, 246-acre, 300-feet-tall grain terminal on the land in question. During the height of the pandemic, when St. John Parish was enduring the highest per capita Covid death rates in the country, Greenfield was busy securing support for the project from public officials.
Christopher James, who made millions selling tech stocks and is the principal of San Francisco-based Medlock Investments, owner of Greenfield Louisiana, has maintained an image as an eco-friendly, socially conscious entrepreneur. Aside from a few stories in local outlets, he has largely escaped notice for his central role in the proposed grain terminal and its harms to the historic Black community in Wallace.
The Banners, who are themselves descendants of people enslaved in Louisiana, grew up in Wallace and now own and operate a cafe that sells goods made from the recipes of their ancestors and presents the Afro-Creole history of the region through the lens of their own family’s oral histories. Children at the time of the corrupt zoning, they remember the anxiety that gripped their community and the resistance that forced Formosa to abandon the project. (Formosa is now attempting to build a massive plastics factory on land where there are burial grounds of enslaved people in nearby St. James.)
The targets of the lawsuit are the parish, the parish council, the parish planning commission, and the parish department of planning and zoning; and the named defendants are Parish President Jaclyn Hotard and Director of Planning and Zoning Rene Pastorak. Greenfield Louisiana has sued to intervene and join the case. The suit also takes aim at the parish’s convoluted zoning process that has left it with at least four different maps held out to the public as official. These maps have conflicting zoning designations for the Wallace tract and violate the parish’s own ordinances.
While the judge declined to rule on the merits of the case today, he rejected the defense’s request to dismiss the case on procedural grounds, which allows the case to proceed.
“Through this case, the Descendants Project has brought to light an old, egregious wrong that did a lot of harm to a lot of people,” said Pamela Spees, a senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “This case is about how it’s never too late to do the right thing, and we look forward to making the case to get this unlawful ordinance off the books.”
Composed of more than just grain, grain dust can also include insect parts, bird and rodent feces, bacteria, fungi, and pesticides. In an area already heavily polluted by factories, grain dust ‒ proven to cause health problems ‒ would make poor air and water quality even worse for Wallace residents, whose houses would be as close as 300 feet from the complex.
Some parts of the facility would rise as high as 300 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty, blocking sunlight and views, and the constant noise, residents say, would disrupt the peaceful rhythms of this rural community.
In addition, there are unmarked burial sites of people once enslaved on the nearby plantations that are often undiscovered unless developers find and report them. Recently, Forensic Architecture, an internationally recognized agency, examined the site and identified a series of archeological abnormalities that suggest the presence of unmarked graves.
Just to the east of the site is the Whitney Plantation and Museum, a national landmark recognized for its mission to educate visitors and the public at large about slavery. The Louisiana State Preservation Officer has expressed concern about the impact of the terminal on the Whitney, citing the height of the towers and the odors. Likewise endangered is another national landmark adjacent to the Wallace tract, the Evergreen Plantation.
The Descendants Project is a 501c3 nonprofit organization established to support descendant communities in the river parishes working together to dismantle the legacies of slavery and to achieve a healed and liberated future. Learn more at https://www.thedescendantsproject.com/.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.