WELCOME — Activists are accusing a Formosa Chemical subsidiary of having initially withheld from the general public its knowledge of two small cemeteries believed to hold the remains of slaves at the site proposed for a new plastics complex in St. James Parish.

Disclosure of the grave sites could have added another factor for the parish Planning Commission and Parish Council to consider during the contentious parish land use debates in late 2018 over the permit needed for the $9.4 billion complex to go forward, according to the groups that have been fighting the complex.

Activists want $9.4B Formosa project stopped due to slave cemetery at St. James site

With that permit now in hand, Formosa is pursuing state air and operating permits pending before the state Department of Environmental Quality.

After filing public records requests in November, Rise St. James, the Center for Constitutional Rights and others unearthed archaeological reports by Formosa's contractors since mid-2018 gradually peeling back a slice of the pre- and post-Civil War history underneath the land.

Victor Franckiewicz Jr., a parish government attorney who handles land use matters, said he could recall no instance when Formosa disclosed the grave sites in public hearings over the land use permit. 

Formosa's initial archaeological investigation required for state permits did not find any grave sites, but an unnamed independent researcher informed the state in late July 2018 about an 1878 map showing two graves sites on the land, according to reports the groups obtained.   

One of the sites was associated with the old Buena Vista Plantation and is now in buffer land along the nearly 2,400-acre site. Researchers found at least four human burials and eight grave shafts and the grave site is now fenced off, a June report says.

The other, associated with the Acadia Plantation, was more centrally on Formosa's property in the west bank community of Welcome and would be at the site of a utility plant that a company lawyer said would be difficult to move, a company email says. Subsequent archaeological investigations determined the cemetery, if it existed, was destroyed by borrow pits dug years before the company owned the land, according to a June report.

In a letter submitted Wednesday to DEQ, attorneys for the Center of Constitutional Rights said each investigation has turned up more grave sites and they fear more graves could exist on company land.

They also pointed to an email from a Formosa attorney soon after the graves came to light in mid-2018 where the attorney discussed the possibility of relocating the remains at the Acadia site and that the state would grant those permits "'quickly, within a matter of days."

"While site investigators believe the cemetery may have already been destroyed by past ground disturbances — unconnected to Formosa — Rise St. James is concerned that if remains are subsequently located in this area, the company may chose to move quickly to remove them," the letter says.

Greg Langley, spokesman for DEQ, said he could not speak about the Formosa permit. He noted that, in other cases, old grave sites haven't prevented the issuance of air permits but the companies must allow access to the sites. 

Janile Parks, a spokesman for FG LA LLC, said documentation about the graves was submitted to the state and was publicly available before the parish land use permit was granted. 

Parks pointed to an environmental assessment statement dated Jan. 7, 2019, and submitted to DEQ that includes information about the survey work related to the grave sites. 

The Parish Council granted final approval on Jan. 23, 2019, after an appeal by Rise St. James. The Buena Vista grave site was confirmed in late October 2018, said Pam Spees, senior attorney with the center. 

Email David J. Mitchell at dmitchell@theadvocate.com

Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.

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