NEW ORLEANS -- Land bought for a Taiwan company's planned $9.4 billion plastics complex may hold as many as seven slave cemeteries — five more than previously thought, local activists said Wednesday.
The 146-page report from Coastal Environments Inc. said the 2,500-acre (1,000-hectare) site holds five previously unknown areas that archaeologists concluded may hold the graves of slaves, in addition to two mapped in the late 1800s.
A community group called Rise St. James sent a letter about the report on Wednesday to St. James Parish Council members in hopes of convincing them to revoke permits for the Formosa Plastics Group member called FG LA LLC, said founder Sharon Lavigne.
“We sent a letter to the parish ... because the parish don't try to find anything for themselves so Rise St. James has to do the job for the council,” she said during a news conference livestreamed from just outside a gate on the Formosa grounds.
She and five members of her group were later able to visit one of the sites marked on the old map, but it took about an hour and intervention by sheriff's deputies before a guard let them through the gate, she said. The group had a letter from the sheriff saying state law allowed relatives and friends access to burial grounds, she said.
FG LA, which plans a complex of 10 chemical plants and four other major facilities on the site, has followed the law throughout and has fenced off the graveyard it did find, spokeswoman Janile Parks said in an email from a public relations firm. She said the company is reviewing and evaluating the report.
The other possible site is in an area where earth was dug out to use in other places before Formosa bought the land. If it ever was a burial site, earlier owners destroyed any evidence, Parks said.
“FG will continue to be respectful of historical burial grounds and will continue to follow all applicable local, state and federal laws and regulations related to land use and cultural resources,” she wrote.
The Parish Council's chairman and vice chairman did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment about the archaeological report.
Archaeologists matched buildings, roads and other features on various maps made from the 1870s on, as well as aerial and satellite photographs made between 1940 and 2018. They then layered those images in a computer to look for anomalies, according to the report.
For instance, the report said, “A low, wet area with willow trees in an otherwise plowed field could be all that remains of a former sugarhouse pond. Likewise, a small stand of trees in a plowed field might be avoided because it contained headstones or was known to have been a cemetery.”
An archaeologist from Coastal Environments notified the state in 2018 that U.S. Coast Survey maps from 1877 and 1878 showed crosses denoting cemeteries.
For the new report, the company also made overlays of the trenches dug to look for evidence of a cemetery in the area where FG found no remains or other evidence. It found that one set of trenches extended to just outside the immediate area where a cross was marked and the second was farther away.
“Were they actually looking for the gravesites or not?” asked Rise member Gail LeBoeuf.
Coastal Environments archaeologists did the work on their own time, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Rise St. James and other groups in suits seeking to overturn FG LA's federal and state permits.