How many burial sites are on the land where Formosa Plastics plans to build?

Formosa says one, but its opponents say up to six

Sharon Lavigne, pictured at left holding the bouquet of roses, founded the environmental justice group Rise St. James two years ago in response to Formosa Plastics plan to build a $9.4B manufacturing plant in St. James Parish. The group is seeking a temporary injunction in federal court to halt construction on the project. In this photo from June 19, members of Rise St. James pray over what they say are the graves of formerly enslaved Black people. Formosa is planning to build its manufacturing complex there. (Photo courtesy Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

Rise St. James and Formosa Plastics don’t agree about what’s going to happen in the future.  The environmental justice group says air, water and soil quality are already awful in St. James Parish, and, if Formosa Plastics is allowed to build a $9.4B manufacturing complex on the west bank, the environment will become even more toxic. “We’re already having trouble breathing…. We already can’t drink the water,” said Sharon Lavigne, who founded Rise St. James in 2018 when she heard Formosa was looking to build two miles from her home.

Formosa disagrees with Lavigne’s prediction that its Sunshine Project (to be built near the Sunshine Bridge) will cause more suffering. Janile Parks, a spokesperson for the company, says Formosa “is committed to the St. James community and to protecting the health and safety of its employees, the community and the environment.” The company’s plan, Parks said, “includes rigorous emission controls and operating limits in its design and in its air permit applications” and the company will “comply with multiple laws, regulations and permits designed to protect public health.”

In June 2019, Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt, a federal judge in Texas, ruled that Formosa had not only violated the Clean Water act by discharging pollution into the state’s waterways but that they’d also violated Texas’ permits. Formosa agreed to pay $50 million to settle with the residents and environmental groups that sued the company.

Formosa and Rise St. James not only disagree about what will happen in the future;  they also disagree about the past. Formosa plans to build on former sugarcane plantations near the Mississippi River, and Rise St. James says that on those 2,400 acres, there are as many as seven gravesites for Black people who died while enslaved.  Formosa says it’s identified two possible burial sites and concluded that only one actually has graves. And, with the state’s blessing, Parks said, Formosa has fenced that area off to preserve it.

Rise St. James says Formosa wouldn’t have found the site it acknowledges if the company hadn’t been made to repeatedly go back and look again after concluding there were no graves there. And Rise St. James alleges that, even now, the company isn’t looking hard to find burial grounds whose presence might derail its mega-construction project.

Motion for injunction filed

Rise St. James, Louisiana Bucket Brigade and Healthy Gulf are seeking to halt — and ultimately block — Formosa’s plan for St. James Parish. As previously reported, the environmental groups requested an injunction against Formosa Tuesday in federal court in the District of Columbia.

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the suit for the plaintiffs and names the Army Corps of Engineers and FG LA LLC, a subsidiary of Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics, as defendants. The plaintiffs allege that, in giving Fomorsa the permits it needs to build, the Corps violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Rivers and Harbors Act and, because of potential desecration of graves, the National Historic Preservation Act.

The day after that motion for an injunction was filed, Parks, the spokesperson for Formosa, described the company’s search for gravesites in an email. “ In 2017, FG initiated an archaeological assessment of the property,” Parks wrote. “In coordination with the State Historic Preservation Office, archaeologists identified through historic maps only two potential unmarked burial sites on the property. At one of these sites, known as the Buena Vista site, four sets of human remains were found on the property. At the direction of SHPO, FG has fenced in and protected the Buena Vista site within the boundary of its property. FG will always be respectful of the burial remains discovered on its property.”

But even after Formosa acknowledged the presence of buried bodies on its site, it objected to a request from Rise St. James to let its members hold a Juneteenth prayer service over those bodies. A  St. James Parish judge ruled that Formosa would lose nothing by letting Rise St. James members pray over those graves for an hour and granted Rise St. James permission.. Formosa appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in Gretna to keep the group off the land, but a 3-judge panel let the district court judge’s ruling stand, and so Rise St. James members went to the site of those graves on June 19.

In a virtual press conference held after the injunction was filed Tuesday, Lavigne, the leader of Rise St. James, said the company made it as difficult as possible for them to gather and pray.  They were made to park at a distance and walk, Lavigne said, and they also were forced to line up for temperature checks. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, gatekeepers holding infrared thermometers have become a common sight, but Lavigne wasn’t expecting to be screened for fever outdoors. “Check our temperature?  For what? The people in the graves already dead,” Lavigne  said. “Formosa took a lot of our time that we were supposed to spend doing our ceremony.”

Number of gravesites in dispute

Rise St. James, in a March 11 letter to the St. James Parish Council, argues that at the former Acadia Plantation, Formosa “chose to investigate an area where the cemetery was not located.” Relying on a report from Coastal Environments, Inc.,  a Baton Rouge company that conducts environmental and archaeological investigations, Rise St. James informed the Parish Council that in addition to Buena Vista and Acadia, there may be four more cemeteries beneath Formosa’s planned footprint and one more close to it.

“After two rounds of investigation, no evidence of burials was found at Acadia,” Parks wrote in Wednesday’s email. “Those working against FG‘s project in St. James Parish have referred to ‘other possible cemeteries’ but these are anomalies – like a tree, for example – on historic aerial photographs that have never been shown on any historic map as a possible cemetery. They are simply anomalies, which are defined as anything inconsistent with agricultural use.”

According to Parks, “FG has done thousands of shovel tests on the property many of which were done in the areas of or near these claimed anomalies, and no remains have been found other than at the Buena Vista site.”

Not counting what was found at Buena Vista and Acadia, CEI noted a series of 13 anomalies that appear over several decades of aerial imagery. The company was able to exclude eight of those anomalies as possible cemeteries but believes the remaining five could be.

Parks cited the example of a tree as an anomaly that’s not a gravesite, but that’s not a sound conclusion,  said Kathe Hambrick, founder of the River Road African Burial Grounds Coalition.

“Trees were commonly placed as a marker at the head of a grave,” Hambrick said in an email Wednesday. “We know this to be the case in Louisiana, Caribbean and some parts of Africa.”

Hambrick, who is also the founder and director of the River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville, upriver from the proposed Sunshine Project, wrote “I refer to these ‘cemeteries’ as sacred places and burial grounds that deserve to be protected in the same way as Native American burial grounds. We, as African Americans on the River Road have lost so much of our land, history and culture because of displacement over the years.

In 2013 Shell Oil discovered that as many as 1,000 Black people who died while enslaved were buried on the land where Shell built its oil refinery in Convent. The oil company later worked with Hambrick and her museum to conduct archeological and geneological studies, to schedule a memorial service for the dead and to provide limited access to the site for the public and people whose ancestors may be buried there. 

“I hope Formosa will at least do what Shell Oil did in ‘partnership to protect’ what’s left,” Hambrick said. 

This story was updated to clarify that while activists believe that there may be five more burial sites than Formosa acknowledges, only four are within the boundaries of Formosa’s planned construction. The fifth is nearby.

 

Email response from Janile Parks, director of community and government relations, FG LA LLC (Formosa):

The motion is full of speculation and short on facts. It is without merit. The current limited and unintrusive preconstruction activities FG is conducting on The Sunshine Project property in St. James Parish are being done in a safe and environmentally protective manner. These limited activities do not justify the overly broad remedy plaintiffs seek to shut the whole project down. FG will strenuously oppose the filing. We expect the federal government also will oppose the injunction being sought.  

The plaintiff’s filing failed to mention that FG continues to be transparent and has shared planned preconstruction activities with the community and described in detail the company’s planned activities and schedules with the plaintiffs. The St. James Parish Planning Commission and the parish council approved FG’s land use plan after a lengthy process that included numerous public hearings. Plaintiffs have expressed concern about, and opposition to, the widening of Highway 3127. However, this project will be of great benefit to the community and will fulfill a long-standing parish goal to help improve that highway. FG has also consistently shared planned preconstruction activities with the local community through a number of channels including local advertising and direct mail to homes, and will continue to do so.

Given the now pending litigation, we will not be getting into any more details on the merits. However, given some of the inflammatory allegations in the plaintiff’s motion, it is important for the public to be aware that there have been no disturbances to the Buena Vista site. It is important to note that the historic maps of the property showed only two possible burial sites. In 2017, FG initiated an archaeological assessment of the property. In coordination with the State Historic Preservation Office, archaeologists identified through historic maps only two potential unmarked burial sites on the property. At one of these sites, known as the Buena Vista site, four sets of human remains were found on the property. At the direction of SHPO, FG has fenced in and protected the Buena Vista site within the boundary of its property. The second site is the Acadia site. After two rounds of investigation, no evidence of burials was found at Acadia.

FG is, and has been, fully transparent and in full cooperation with state and federal agencies charged with oversight of cultural resources and burial sites – State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). When the company learned of the remains found at the Buena Vista site on the property, FG immediately fenced in, protected and preserved the area. Besides the fully publicly available SHPO records and process, FG also disclosed the burial site in its supplemental Environmental Assessment Statement to Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ) in January 2019; however, no public comments regarding the burial sites were submitted on the LDEQ air permit and were mentioned well after the public comment period had ended.

Although FG repeatedly asked opponents of the project to provide any information they had about possible descendants related to remains found on the property, they only notified us of a possible descendant through court pleadings. FG has since reached out to that person and hopes to remain in close contact as the company goes through the process of trying to learn more about the identity and ethnicity of the remains.

Those working against FG’s project in St. James Parish have referred to ‘other possible cemeteries’ but these are anomalies – like a tree, for example – on historic aerial photographs that have never been shown on any historic map as a possible cemetery. They are simply anomalies, which are defined as anything inconsistent with agricultural use. Moreover, as part of the company’s diligence on the property and with oversight by SHPO, FG has done thousands of shovel tests on the property many of which were done in the areas of or near these claimed anomalies, and no remains have been found other than at the Buena Vista site. 

FG will always be respectful of the burial remains discovered on its property. FG is committed to the St. James community and to preserving its rich history and cultural resources and seeks cooperation as we focus efforts on addressing and resolving the issues raised in the lawsuit.

Further, FG is committed to the St. James community and to protecting the health and safety of its employees, the community and the environment. The Sunshine Project includes rigorous emission controls and operating limits in its design and in its air permit applications. FG’s process will reduce emissions to the maximum extent possible with high efficiency emission control equipment that satisfies Best Available Control Technology (BACT) and Maximum Achievable Emission Rate (MACT). In addition, FG will comply with multiple laws, regulations and permits designed to protect public health and will use process technology that captures and reuses process materials to minimize emissions. Furthermore, to address community concerns and as part of FG’s land use ordinance with St. James Parish, FG will voluntarily place air quality monitors along its eastern property boundary to provide data on air emissions. FG is also working with St. James Parish governance to provide timely construction and traffic alerts via text messaging and social media.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.