The St. Charles Parish Council unanimously approved a zoning change for a portion of property owned by Bunge North America in Destrehan that will allow the grain elevator to begin construction of a $50 million upgrade at the facility.
Several residents spoke both for and against the project at Monday’s council meeting. A majority of those who spoke in favor of the project were Bunge employees or contractors who might have lost their jobs if the parish had voted against the zoning change.
The planned changes include the construction of a new conveyor belt to transfer seed, the addition of a new grain sprout aimed at controlling dust escaping from the facility and a new dock. The current dock and conveyor belt have been in place since the 1960s.
Bunge spokesman Matt Kerrigan said that the new conveyor system and dock cannot be built in place of the current one because that would mean an entire plant shutdown for around two and a half years. Instead, construction will begin just to the west of the current system so that Bunge can continue to use the old dock and conveyor belt until the new project is complete.
Kerrigan said Bunge currently employees 150 workers and 50 contractors, who would lose their jobs if a shutdown were to occur.
However, some community members are worried that the new project will move the grain elevator even closer to their homes.
“You cannot justify what Bunge wants to do to us legally or morally,” Destrehan resident Caecillie Schwartz told the council. “We have cancer, we have sickness, we have noise everywhere. They have not been a good neighbor for 61 years.”
Schwartz and other residents in the vicinity of the grain elevator were offered $500 Home Depot gift cards from Bunge last week. Schwartz and many others said the cards were a slap in the face.
“They are making the offer because they know they are wrong,” she said.
But Kerrigan maintains that the updated system will reduce dust in the area. Bunge will also be held to more stringent standards with the new technology, he added.
Several people who spoke at the meeting echoed Kerrigan’s comments.
“It’s dusty now and it won’t be as dusty later,” Destrehan resident Bruce Bourgeois said. “They are just moving over on land they already own.”
Victor Castille, who lives in the shadow of the grain elevator, said the project will be an improvement that will eliminate dust.
“They already have a wharf there, all you want to do is modernize, update it so it can service the community better,” he said.
Councilman Clayton “Snookie” Faucheux said Bunge listened to concerns brought up by residents at town hall meetings and changed the project to limit the impact. Bunge originally sought to rezone 7.06 acres, but changed the area to 4.87 acres after hearing complaints.
Faucheux also called the technology that will be used in the project “incredible” and said similar technology is used in strict regulatory states such as Washington.
Fellow Councilman Billy Woodruff agreed, saying the technology that will be used has to make things better for the surrounding community. He was also concerned that so many jobs could be affected if the council voted against the project.
“I can’t see putting 200 people out of work,” he said.Toni Portera, who lives right next to the facility, took issue with calling the project an upgrade when she believes it is an expansion.
“The wharf is going from one block to three blocks,” she said. “That’s an expansion.”
She also finds it hard to believe that Bunge is attempting to limit dust in the community and said they have ulterior motives.
“If (Bunge) wanted to get rid of dust, they would have done it 51 years ago,” she said.