CONVENT — Activists opposed to a $9.4 billion Formosa Plastics complex in St. James Parish urged the Parish Council to force companies to inform the council when grave sites are uncovered in the parish, which was once home to dozens of antebellum plantations along Mississippi River.

Those groups have accused FG LA LLC, the Formosa affiliate behind the future chemical plant, of not telling parish officials about the company's discovery of possible historic cemeteries on its 2,400-acre site amid a contentious parish permitting process in mid-2018.

The controversy at the proposed plant has sparked a debate about cemeteries that dot the river region, where plantations were the lifeline of Louisiana's pre-Civil War agricultural economy — fueled by slave labor.

Pam Spees, a senior staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told the Parish Council this week that state law requires landowners to notify the chief law enforcement officer in the parish and the state Division of Archaeology about potential grave sites — but not the parish.

"Certainly for Rise (St. James) and folks and members of the community, that's a very important piece of information that would have been important to know at the time," said Spees, who is representing Rise St. James.

The groups contend a confirmed cemetery tied to the former Buena Vista Plantation holds the remains of slaves. 

The Buena Vista cemetery has four sets of human remains, eight grave shafts and signs of post holes.

FG LA says it's unclear who is buried there but is trying to find out more.

Spees argued that information about potential historical sites is important for land use planning and preservation of the region's history, as the Buena Vista cemetery now represents, she said. Parish officials have said they didn’t know about the graves until they were told by the activists.

"I don't think you can overstate the significance of that discovery, and what it's meant to people in the community," she said.

The proposed plant near the Welcome community would create 1,200 permanent jobs, generate tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and has support from Gov. John Bel Edwards and several local officials. 

The council did not act on St. James Parish resident Gail LeBoeuf's request for a resolution supporting the notification requirement. Alvin "Shark" St. Pierre, the council chairman, informed LeBoeuf and Spees that the council has been reviewing all the information that the groups have been providing and forwarding it to the appropriate agencies. 

He added in a later interview that the resolution was premature and more needs to be learned about the grave sites.

"I think it needs to go through the system, and if the parish needs to do something, I think we'll take a look at it," St. Pierre said. 

Before Wednesday night's meeting, FG LA sent council members a letter emphasizing that the company has followed the law and is committed to preserving the parish's "rich history and cultural resources." The company recently sidelined plans to move the Buena Vista cemetery until more could be learned.

The letter also accused opponents of misrepresenting the facts and trying to "blame the company for just about anything," even as company officials have tried to cooperate with them on the grave sites.

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.