The Mississippi River is one of the world’s great industrial and transportation corridors. But advocates for a loosely defined notion of “environmental justice” oppose the further development of businesses that have the chance to bring a generation now living in poverty into good jobs with good wages.
We must find a way to balance the need for stringent environmental regulation of pollutants with a reasonable way forward for commercial development — or the communities on the river’s banks will continue to be mired in unacceptably high rates of unemployment and poverty.
New jobs are overwhelmingly supported by local officials elected by the people, as in St. James Parish, where small local groups aided by national environmentalists campaign relentlessly against expanding the plastics industry.
As a society, we need to come up with some definition, other than a blanket opposition to industry, of what exactly is environmental justice under the law — or any business, large or small, could be stymied by critics’ complaints.
The river parishes, more than most places in America, can’t afford a fuzzy legal doctrine that translates into unelected groups having a veto over the jobs and life-changing benefits that high salaries can bring.
Good jobs, good wages, go away? That’s not in the interests of the river parishes in Louisiana.
The Biden administration has eagerly embraced environmental justice as a cause. But what are the specific regulations and definitions to translate a sweeping feel-good goal into a rational basis for decisions on issues like placement of major job-creating businesses?
The best causes in the world are counterproductive unless given a framework built by law that serves the economic and social interests of society.
The latest industrial/commercial development to come under fire is a large grain terminal proposed in Wallace. It would be adjacent to the famous Whitney Plantation, an attraction that has focused on honoring the enslaved Africans who built the sugar cane and indigo empire that made Louisiana’s plantation owners wealthy before the Civil War.
The Whitney history lessons are extremely valuable and the jobs there are important. But it would be historical nonsense to say that a grain elevator, however large, is some groundbreaking development on the river. The reason Thomas Jefferson sought Louisiana in 1803 was as an outlet for grain and other products, in those days by shipping to New Orleans for transfer to oceangoing ships.
Today, industrial sites on the river are commanding a premium, as the corridor continues to grow. And the world will continue to need American grain and soybeans and other products from the farms of the midwestern states.
The critics point to the relatively small number, about 100, of full-time jobs at a completed grain terminal, as if jobs paying an average of $75,000 a year are plentiful in the area outside of industrial developments. And the developer of the terminal said about 500 construction jobs will be generated.
Industrial construction jobs are a vital component of the economy of the river parishes, from Baton Rouge down to the Gulf of Mexico. Those should be encouraged, along with strict controls on polluting emissions to protect the health of those who live nearby.
Agitation against industry garners headlines, but ultimately it is through elected officials’ judgments that local decisions for or against commercial development are made. So it should be with the grain terminal.