In their efforts to start a $50 million upgrade at their Destrehan grain facility, Bunge has offered $500 gift cards to the owners of each structure in the area near where construction is set to take place, but residents largely panned the offering.
Roughly 100 structures would be included in the deal that would cost Bunge an estimated $50,000.
At a town hall meeting earlier this week, Bunge presented the plan to a small crowd of residents, the St. Charles Parish Council, members of the Planning and Zoning Commission as well as a few Bunge employees who were in the crowd.
The current conveyer belt feeds into the middle of the facility over River Road and has been in place since 1962. The proposed changes at the facility are being considered an upgrade, not an expansion, and would include the construction of a new conveyer belt to transfer seed from barges to the silo and back, the addition of a new grain spout aimed at controlling dust from escaping the facility and a new dock.
Matt Kerrigan, facility manager at Bunge, said the new conveyor system cannot be built in the place of the current one because that would mean an entire plant shutdown for around two and a half years.
In order to construct a new conveyer system without interrupting operations, Bunge’s plans are to build the new system just to the west of the current one, which has community members worried about increased dust infiltration into their homes.
“Community members had spoke, obviously, concerning dust in proximity to the community. The dust (problem) mainly centered around the condition of the homes, condition of the cars and the increased expenses on air conditioning and other things such as noise,” Kerrigan said.
In addition to offering the gift cards, Bunge changed prior blueprint plans that would have extended the conveyor about 400 feet further to the west, however, the current plans still extend the facility and some residents have objected to any extension because it will bring the facility closer to their homes.
“You are pushing all of this stuff on top of us, on top of our subdivision where we have women and children and sick people and everything else. Maybe they are reducing their dust, but we are still being bombarded by dust. I think it would be a good thing for them to close for 28 months,” area resident Caecilie Schwartz said.
Kerrigan said to shut down operations at the facility for an extended period of time would be a blow to the community.
“I’ve got 150 employees. My payroll right now including taxes is $11 million a year. They are good paying jobs. I can guarantee you that not one of those 150 employees, nor this parish losing that money, nor the additional contractors I have out there every single day is going to want to lose their jobs for two years. The parish is not going to want that,” he said.
In order to alleviate some of the problems dust emissions have caused in the area, Kerrigan said he had spoken with a few Parish Council members about a plan to offer gift cards to residents.
“During the construction period we are prepared to give out gift cards to all of the residents between essentially Destrehan Park and Gabriel Heights and the James subdivision, which is Archer Daniels Midland to us inside that entire area. (With the) $500 Home Depot card you can get your cleaning supplies, if you want a pressure washer or you want home improvement. They also offer services as far as air conditioning repair,” he said.
Schwartz said a $500 gift card is a paltry sum for the amount of damage she and others in the community have experienced due to the infiltration of dust.
“A $500 dollar gift card doesn’t cut it. If you are going to give us a $500 gift card I want a letter from your legal department admitting liability. Because that is what that is, it’s an admission of liability that you’ve damaged us,” she said.
Toni Portera’s family has owned a home in the area for 91 years, pre-dating the construction of the Bunge facility. She said over the years Bunge has been a bad neighbor and she does not trust their efforts.
“A $500 gift card means nothing. That’s a slap in the face. It is an insult. This is our home we have to live with for the rest of our lives. This is our life, or quality of life,” she said.
Portera said the neighborhood will always have to deal with dust emissions because of its proximity to the grain elevators.
“You have no buffer zone. Just because you have a couple of streets and a lot of houses and tore them all down and raped our neighborhood doesn’t mean you have the right to keep doing it to us. These are our homes.”
While Bunge has bought out some homes in the area in the past, Kerrigan said it has been on a case by case basis and that there are no plans to proceed with an area-wide homeowner buyout plan.
Huey Antill, a 27-year resident of Destrehan, suggested that Bunge buy out all of the homes near the grain elevator and move their employees in since they seem to have no problems with the dust.
Any upgrades at the plant will have to undergo permitting by the Planning and Zoning Department as well as approval by the Parish Council.
However, the Parish Council has already turned down the construction project once and Bunge recently suffered a defeat when the Planning and Zoning Commission denied the necessary permits in their last meeting.
Councilman Billy Woodruff, who represents the area where Bunge is located, said it seems like the grain elevator has a tough fight ahead of them.
“The first time they came before the council they didn’t have the proper permits. Since then they came before planning and zoning and there were a lot of residents there against it. I think that’s pretty much why the board turned it down,” he said.