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Cancer-ridden historic district in Louisiana rails against new project

Chrystal Blair
17 May 2024

An environmental justice organization in Wallace, Louisiana, says it won't back down in a fight for the health of its historic community.

The Descendants Project, which focuses on the cultural and historic preservation of enslaved Africans, has been successful in one lawsuit against St. John the Baptist Parish but is heading back to court. The dispute is over zoning ordinances that allow industrial giants to set up shop on the borders of residential areas.

Jo Banner, co-founder and co-director of The Descendants Project, said the battle is far from over.

"The land was reverted back to residential, but unfortunately, our parish administration and Parish Council went right back and switched, zoned the land back to heavy industry," Banner explained.

The land at the center of the conflict is known as the "Greenfield Property," where the company Greenfield Louisiana wants to build a large grain elevator and export terminal. Banner contends the area between New Orleans and Baton Rouge already has an overload of grain and petrochemical industries, and has been nicknamed "Cancer Alley."

Banner noted her organization has now filed another lawsuit against the parish to have the land zoning revert once again to residential. She stressed the tug-of-war shouldn't be happening.

"What's really sad is that residents like ourselves have to go through these measures in order to have safe zoning. If we did not have the support of our legal firms and our advocacy firms, we would not be able to continue the fight," she emphasized.

Banner pointed out residents of St. John the Baptist Parish have some of the highest cancer risk in the country; seven to eight times more than the average American.

"We have men who are getting breast cancer and having to get double mastectomies, children getting cancer at a young age, older people getting cancer when they should be past that point of getting cancer, and also rare forms of cancers," Banner added.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently recognized the community of Wallace as a National Register Historic District as part of the African American experience in Louisiana.

A judge will decide if the parish will be allowed to eliminate the 2,000-foot distance requirement from residential neighborhoods to allow the grain elevator and export terminal to be built.

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