St. James community fights for existence

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2014

By David vitrano

ST. JAMES – Driving west along the west bank of St. James Parish, after passing the plantations of St. Joseph and Oak Alley, the quietly residential landscape gives way to industrial and agricultural operations. But lying among the smokestacks and storage tanks is a small community fighting for its very survival.

A little more than a year ago, state officials, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, along with several leaders from St. James Parish gathered beneath the picturesque trees at Oak Alley to proclaim the latest “win” for the parish — that St. James Parish would be home to the largest methanol plant in the nation.

While much of the parish rejoiced over the construction of the $1.3 billion facility, residents of the parish’s Fifth District, which includes the communities of St. James, Moonshine and Welcome and is the oldest settled area of the parish, dreaded the coming of yet another potentially dangerous industry coming to their area.

The ever-encroaching industrial concerns combined with a recent effort by the St. James Parish School Board to close Fifth Ward Elementary School has some residents of the area feeling forgotten — or worse.

Having seen Rome ville Elementary close its doors a year prior, Dianne Spencer, a lifelong resident of the area, was very active in the fight to save Fifth Ward Elementary.

“What was done in the Romeville community, they’re trying to do to Fifth Ward,” she said.

“The only reason it is still open this long is because the community came together,” she added.

But the current construction of the new St. James High stadium in Vacherie, with possible future plans to move the entire high school to the location near the intersection of Louisiana Highways 20 and 3127, has Spencer and others worried about the future and concerned about the way her community is portrayed to the public as a whole.

“It is not a dying community as long as we live here,” she said. “It has always been a quiet, quaint place.”

She and others, such as Clyde Cooper, son of local civil rights pioneer Oliver Cooper, are also frustrated with a parish government that often seems to give with one hand and take with the other.

A recreational park in the area was recently given a makeover that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Plans for the methanol plant put it directly adjacent to the well-used greenspace.

Cooper said he has done some research on methanol production and found some of the chemicals used to be highly dangerous to the surrounding environment.

“It does not even cling to mud,” he said. “If it spills, it goes straight to the water source.”

Besides pollution issues, nearby industry comes with other problems. Smokestacks and grain elevators hide the area’s natural beauty while constant truck traffic could degrade the roads and provide even more dangers to the area’s residents.

“You’re putting the people in jeopardy,” said Cooper.

A proposed land-use plan for the parish, now in the midst of its public-hearing period, has only cemented the residents’ concerns that the parish would like to see the Fifth District communities fall by the wayside. On the maps, the residential areas of the Fifth District are designated “residential/future industrial,” the only such area on the map. St. James Parish Assistant Director of Operations Blaise Gravois, who led the group that came up with the land-use maps, has in fact said that it may be too late for the residents of the Fifth District but that one goal of the land-use plan is to prevent circumstances such as this in the future.

“It’s almost like there’s a united effort to pull all the resources out of the Fifth District,” said Cooper.

“That’s something that’s been in the making for a long time,” added Spencer.

Both lamented the fact that the tax money the already heavily industrial area produces mostly goes to other parts of the parish.

Cooper was quick to point out that he is not anti-industry but just passionate about his home community. He said in the late ‘90s, when Shintech was seeking to build a facility in Romeville, his father helped pen an agreement between the industry and several civic organizations within St. James Parish that stipulated the company would provide equal opportunities for citizens of the parish and create outreach programs to benefit both the citizens and the environment.

Now, he said, it is only about prestige and the almighty dollar.

“They’re not fighting for this community,” he said.

He and Spencer also lamented the message the parish seems to be sending to its youth — namely, that to have a career in St. James Parish, one must be a part of the industrial machine.

“How much of this stuff do we need?” asked Spencer.

South Louisiana Methanol acquired its air permit in January and plans to start construction in the latter half of 2014, but Spencer and Cooper remain resolute that something can still be done.

“I believe, by the grace of God, by the Fifth Ward people coming together, some of these things can be stopped,” said Cooper. “It’s not out of anger. It’s not out of hate. It’s out of deep concern. I think we all should have the same right to a good, valuable life.”

Spencer put it a bit more bluntly: “I was born in this community, and I expect to die here.”