ST. GABRIEL — Over the years, this small Iberville Parish city flourished in the vast shadows of the numerous petrochemical and industrial plants dominating its rural landscape.
But many residents say enough is enough, and are making it clear they don't want to see any more chemical plants come into the community.
They've made their views known as they troop to City Hall regularly seeking to block requests to change residential zoning to classifications that would green light the construction of new industrial facilities.
"We're always vulnerable; always having to fight to keep things the way they are. It's just exhausting," says longtime resident Thomas Miller.
Instead of putting out a welcome mat for more smokestacks Miller, and some other residents argue, it's time city leaders look toward more commercial and residential development.
ST. GABRIEL — For the second time this year in the Baton Rouge area, residents rose up to op…
If city officials can't bring themselves to flat out reject requests for industrial zoning, these residents say, the mayor and City Council could at least adopt a master plan that would lock in more commercial and residential zoning classifications for the future, sending a clear message that those in industry need to look elsewhere to set up shop.
The issue extends beyond the city's limits to those who live in unincorporated areas of Iberville Parish as people like Tyrone Williams join forces with those inside the city limits to fight industry expansion.
Williams keeps a watchful eye for zoning requests on local government meeting agendas and has become an instrumental voice in rallying the community together to pressure city leaders to take stock of public outcry against authorizing new industrial development.
"I just want to see a good quality of life here and people not having to worry about exposure to chemicals and noise from plants," Williams said. "I don't know what to make of the current status of where we're going."
The opposition against industry has at least one solid ally among the council in Councilman Kelvin York.
He said he'd like to see St. Gabriel focus more on bringing in a grocery store and retail shops into the city. Those businesses could mean more jobs for residents, he said, since plants rarely hire anyone locals to work at their facilities.
"We need to take a vote on it and try and stop chemical plants period," York said. "As a councilman, I'm tired of every time we change zoning, we're considering it because some industrial plants wants to come in."
Council Melvin Hasten, the city's Mayor Pro-Tem, says any new rezoning request for industry would likely get a "no" vote from him as well, but he has a more open mind on the subject.
"If I think it's going to do a greater good for the community, my mind may change," he says. "They just have to have faith we'll do the right thing."
Mayor Lionel Johnson shares a similar outlook. He's also not opposed to the city sketching out a new master plan.
The city's current plan is severely outdated and was mostly ignored by the previous administration.
The mayor says a plan is already in the works to formally adopt a new plan blueprinting St. Gabriel's growth going forward.
Johnson is quick to add there's still a faction of the community that doesn't mind having the facilities as their neighbors.
"Some people realize we are an industrial city and are happy where we are," Johnson says. "As mayor, I hear arguments on all sides. But those who are anti-industrial are more vocal and organized."
The vocal and organized group of residents Johnson referred to packed the council's chambers in April to beg City Council to reject a zoning request by a local chemical company, Adsorbent Solutions.
The company, which had a troublesome record with the state's environmental agency, wanted to expand its facility near a residential community. The City Council rejected the request.
ST. GABRIEL — The City Council on Thursday voted to block another chemical company from poss…
The residents were back again in July to apply pressure on the council to reject a request to rezone more than 500 acres of undeveloped land owned by Apex Oil from residential to light industrial. They were again successful in their efforts.
Another highly publicized fight broke out in 2015 over a request by owners of more than 3,000 acres of undeveloped land to have the property rezoned from residential to heavy industrial. The owners backed out after meeting with fierce opposition from the same group that has fought other industrial expansions.
That tract of land, owned by the Mayeaux family, and the Apex property are two undeveloped zoned properties in the city most attractive to industrial developers.
The Mayeaux property stretches between Highway 75 and Highway 30, near the East Baton Rouge Parish line. It's in close proximity to many of the city's middle- and upper-middle-class subdivisions.
The Apex property includes approximately 542 acres of undeveloped land off Point Claire Road.
An attorney for Apex Oil said the company would not comment on past zoning requests or answer questions related to future use of the property. Attempts to reach members of the Mayeaux family were unsuccessful.
Johnson said the city frequently gets inquires about the property from industrial developers because they are conveniently located on the Mississippi River.
Ray Brent, resident and member of the city's zoning committee, said citizen opposition to zoning request for both properties are rooted in concerns over the lack of infrastructure to support industrial growth in those areas, as well as emission concerns.
"If they don't grow the infrastructure, you're not going to have much of a city. You're just going to have what they have now, which is mostly plants," Brent said. "And on that front the message is clear from the public: What they have now is all they need. Enough is enough."
Eugene Willis, who lives in a quiet subdivision off Highway 74, is among those who says he's had enough. His neighborhood is surrounded by chemical plants and industrial facilitates to the south and east.
He's convinced emissions from those facilities contributed to the death of his wife and to his own declining health and that of his neighbors.
Willis said the smells are so bad that people living in the area sometimes have to cut off their air conditioning units.
"Every now and again they'll tell us about leaks — of course, they don't tell us anything until a day or so later," he said.
Miller says plant officials claim their facilities are meeting all the minimum standards for public safety.
"But if you look at the emissions produced by the sum total of all the industry in the town...you get something a little more frightening," he said.
Earlier this year, residents invited the Louisiana Environmental Action Network to conduct a community-wide health assessment. The request came after the mayor's office released findings from a health study prepared by a environmental consultant hired by the city.
ST. GABRIEL — The Louisiana Environmental Action Network is compiling a community-wide healt…
The study found no significant contamination in St. Gabriel's soil or drinking water. And a rash of deaths within a four-month time span were from natural causes and were not cancer related as many had feared, the report stated.
Louisiana Chemical Association President Greg Bowser said industry does not take concerns from the public lightly, and pointed out that that the chemical manufacturing industry is heavily regulated by the state.
LCA member sites must pass state and federal environmental inspections and follow certain safety protocols.
"It is not easy to become licensed to operate in Louisiana and LCA members have been, and will continue to be, willing to take the many steps toward showing the necessary dedication to safety and environmental excellence the neighbors of our facilities deserve," Bowser said in a prepared statement.
The mayor said his administration is focused on ensuring that industrial plants in the city aren't crippling the health of his residents. He said he's also striving to make sure industry is properly assessed for tax value and that it's hiring more local residents for jobs.
Leaders of cities along the Mississippi River have chosen St. Gabriel Mayor Lionel Johnson J…
As for getting more commercial development, that's going to be tougher, he says.
"We run into constant roadblocks with the formula business people use," Johnson says. "Their formula is based solely on the number of rooftops."
And when it comes to new residential development, things have stalled a bit, he said.
"We have to work to find a balance," Johnson says. "I talk to people who are happy with the way it is; they say, 'No new people!' And there are others who like growth."