Grain elevator project could destroy historic African-American sites, preservation agency says – ProPublica

The federal agency charged with overseeing historic preservation policy has expressed concern that an industrial project in Louisiana could harm African-American historic sites. The move follows a ProPublica investigation that found an archaeological consulting firm dumped a report to the Army Corps of Engineers that originally detailed that harm.

In a letter sent last week to the army corps, the Historic Preservation Advisory Council said it was aware that the report commissioned by the project developer “was disputed by the original author of the report”. He went on to say, “ACHP requests that the Corps clarify how it will address this issue.” The Corps is considering a permit application from the developer of the project.

Greenfield, a Colorado-based agricultural company, plans to build a grain transfer facility, which would stretch more than a mile from the Mississippi River through the cane fields. The grain terminal has been challenged by community and advocacy groups who say the project would make life untenable in parts of Wallace, a small, almost all-black community. They also argue that the project would damage important historic sites, including the nearby Whitney Plantation Museum, which serves as a memorial to generations of people forced to work the fields against their will, and the Evergreen Plantation, an exceptionally intact plantation that has been designated a national benchmark.

Greenfield said his project will not harm any historic property. As evidence, he cited an investigation he commissioned. But that report, produced by a consulting firm called Gulf South Research Corporation to help Greenfield comply with the National Historic Preservation Act, was significantly edited before being submitted to the Louisiana Division of Historic Preservation.

The letter sent to the Corps last week was authored by Jaime Loichinger, deputy director of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, who said in an interview that the ProPublica story raised questions about the “validity of the report “and had spurred the agency’s intervention. .

The corps, Loichinger said, must “take steps to supplement or replace ‘the report that was amended’ to ensure that they [the Corps] have a full understanding of historical properties.

The original draft of the report had concluded that the development would harm historic properties, including the Whitney Plantation Museum. The authors of the report had written that the entire area around Whitney and the community of Wallace should be characterized as a historic district.

According to internal Gulf South company emails that ProPublica obtained and one of the writers of the original report, an architectural historian-turned-whistleblower named Erin Edwards, the company was told by its client to modify the report or risk losing the Greenfield contract and other future contracts.

In its letter to the Corps, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation echoed the findings of the original report.

“We understand that most of the people in the Wallace community are descendants of African Americans who worked as slaves on the Whitney and Evergreen plantations before emancipation and continued as farm laborers and sharecroppers after emancipation,” says the letter. “As such, there appears to be potential for a historic district associated with this descendant community and an encompassing cultural landscape.”

Gulf South has previously denied changing the findings due to pressure and said it stood by the content of the final report. Greenfield said he would respect all historic sites discovered during construction. “The protection of historic and cultural resources is a priority in our discussions with the Corps of Engineers,” the company said in response to questions about the recent letter from the Historic Preservation Advisory Council. “We take our responsibilities as stewards of this land very seriously.”

The project was recently condemned by other prominent voices in the weeks following the ProPublica investigation. Marc Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans and current president of the National Urban League, whose own ancestors were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation, sent a letter to Greenfield executives on June 3 to express its “unequivocal and vigorous opposition to your ill-advised plans to develop a huge grain elevator complex” and noting its concern at the “silence of an adverse independent assessment”.

And on June 21, the Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation, the state’s leading preservation organization, placed the lands around Wallace and the Whitney Plantation on its 2022 list of “Most Endangered Places.”

“Projects for a large-scale grain elevator, port and other industrial developments will alter the historic integrity of this corridor and destroy the overall quality of life for local residents,” the Louisiana Trust said. said in a press release.

The corps is just beginning its licensing review. The Corps previously told ProPublica it was concerned about possible damage to historic sites. The Corps said last week it would be in touch with the Historic Preservation Advisory Council this week and then respond more formally.

Greenfield has already started field work. In late May, he informed residents of Wallace that he planned to drive large metal beams into the ground of a sugar cane field to determine if construction could proceed as planned.

The Descendants Project, an organization that aims to build power among communities that trace their ancestry to enslaved people in parish communities across the river, has raised the possibility that the work could disrupt the unmarked graves of enslaved people. . As part of an ongoing lawsuit the group is pursuing, The Descendants Project has asked a Louisiana judge to impose a restraining order on Greenfield’s planned “pre-construction” tests on the property.

“You’re talking about people’s final resting places,” Joy Banner, one of Wallace’s two sisters who founded The Descendants Project, said June 3 in a packed courtroom. “That’s why we are here today: because we don’t know where our ancestors are buried.

Greenfield’s attorney said that “there was no evidence of specific burials” at precisely the sites where the company planned to start piling. He claimed that Greenfield would suffer financial loss if he was prohibited from starting pile-driving work on his property.

The judge dismissed the emergency restraining order. Days later, the corps separately refused a request from Tulane University’s Environmental Law Clinic to stop the pile driving, saying it had no jurisdiction because the work itself- even would have no impact on wetlands.

Greenfield builders began driving massive beams into the ground near the Banner family home on June 17 and continued work on June 20 – a federal holiday commemorating June 19, which celebrates the emancipation of slaves.

“I think they’re trying to send the message that this project can’t be stopped and they’re moving forward,” Joy’s sister Jo Banner said. “The cranes are there and they act like they have the permit.”

In its letter, the Historic Preservation Advisory Council made clear its belief that Greenfield’s permit and plans should not be treated as fate, and reminded the Corps of its responsibility to consider environmental justice in authorization decisions. “A federal agency should consider alternatives in a manner that takes full account of the effects of this undertaking on historic properties,” the letter states.

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