The Saga of St. Rosalie: A None-Too-Rosy Past

Situated on the west bank of the Mississippi River, in Plaquemines Parish, the acreage was once known as St. Rosalie Plantation. Even in the early years of Louisiana statehood, the 600-acre tract was unusual – owned by a free man of color, Andrew Durnford, who used slave labor to raise sugarcane there from 1828 until his death in 1859. In the financial downturn that followed the Civil War, his heirs sold the land.

The plantation “next door” to St. Rosalie was acquired by emancipated slaves, eventually becoming the community of Ironton. In the early 1980s, Plaquemines Parish officials earned national notoriety when both Dan Rather with CBS’s 60 Minutes and Walter Isaacson with Time magazine exposed the continued institutionalized racism. From segregated public parks and hospital waiting rooms to being denied parish government jobs, African Americans in Plaquemines Parish continued to be overtly discriminated against. Notably, the parish council refused to provide Ironton with either a water or a sewer system until after the revelations hit newsstands and airwaves in 1981.

St. Rosalie ultimately wound up in the hands of Louisiana Power and Light – Entergy’s predecessor. Throughout the 20th century, much of the land for miles up and downriver, was planted in citrus groves. In the late 1960s, CHS, a grain and food co-operative originally founded in Minnesota in 1929, secured a 99-year lease for part of the St. Rosalie tract, built and started operating a shipping dock and grain elevator on the riverfront. At one point, another part of the tract was leased to a company that attempted to manufacture ethanol, a business that ultimately closed.

Then came Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

And in 2006, the election of new parish council members and a new parish president brought a new mindset to the parish’s rebuilding efforts.

Parish President Billy Nungesser now serves as Lt. Gov.

Billy Nungesser knew how his home parish had been treated during the 1927 Mississippi River Flood – sacrificed to more flooding by blowing the levee to protect New Orleans. (And thanks to John Barry’s Rising Tide, first published in 1997, which became a bestseller in the fall of 2005, post-Katrina, readers worldwide knew the ignominious tale, too. It wasn’t looking much better downriver in the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ plans to upgrade and strengthen the levees excluded lower Plaquemines entirely.

Parish President Nungesser began implementing a different plan– to turn lower Plaquemines into an “industrial corridor.” With the right types of industry in place, he and the rest of the parish’s power brokers reasoned, the feds would have no choice but to build better flood protection for them.

It wasn’t long before the Phillips-66 Alliance refinery in Belle Chasse had cousins move in along the river’s southern banks, including a tank farm and coal transfer facilities. In 2012, following the attention the entire area received in the aftermath of the 2010 BP oil spill, the Corps announced new plans to quadruple the height of the levees below New Orleans, through Plaquemines Parish.

Stewart’s Oakville landfill. Photo from court records.

In 2007, Kennett Stewart, the CEO of Industrial Pipe, found himself flush with cash – a windfall, literally. He had “performed a public service” (as his testimony in later court cases would state) by disposing of Katrina debris in his (unpermitted) landfill in the Plaquemines Parish community of Oakville. (Oakville, like Ironton, was founded by former slaves and retains an exclusively African-American population.)

Stewart decided to use his debris disposal profits to get in on the ethanol craze, forming South Louisiana Ethanol, LLC. In 2007, SLE bought the St. Rosalie plantation land from Entergy for $5.625 million, announcing plans to bring the defunct ethanol facility on that tract back into production.

Funding for the ethanol venture fell through, SLE declared bankruptcy, and through some…shall we say? “questioned” (at least according to court records) maneuvers, TKS Ventures, LLC (a company formed by Kennett Stewart and his wife), acquired title to the property when it was auctioned off, as required by the bankruptcy court.

Stewart was in and out of court, however – in lawsuits with the Plaquemines Parish Council over their denial of a permit to operate and expand his previously unpermitted landfill, but also with the food co-op CHS over their lease for the land. At the height of all this legal wrangling in 2011, while most in the region focused on the aftermath of the BP oil spill, Stewart sold the St. Rosalie land to Colorado-based RAM Terminals for $25-million. That’s nearly four-and-a-half times what Stewart paid for the property just four years previously.

What made this tract of land, with a maximum five foot elevation above sea level, and which the U.S. Geological Survey designates a “flood plain” so very valuable?

It certainly wasn’t because of the way RAM planned to used the property – as a transfer station for coal shipped by rail and barge from the Powder River Basin of Colorado, and thence sent via freighters to other countries. Although local business interests supported the RAM Terminal project, it ran into opposition from environmental advocates and residents of the nearby communities of Ironton and Myrtle Grove. Ultimately the RAM project ran into permit delays and denials, as the powerful statewide coalitions of coastal restoration interests voiced their disapproval.

You see, what made the former St. Rosalie plantation, occupied primarily by citrus trees as it languished for more than a century alongside the mighty Mississippi River, worth $42,000 per acre, when it had sold for just over $9000 per acre four years previously, was that it is the site selected for a key component of the largest planned coastal rebuilding project to date: the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion.

Finally, in 2018, the Plaquemines Port Harbor and Terminal District bought the land from RAM Terminals – for $30.5 million. Yet the port wasn’t acquiring the land to assist the CPRA (Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority) with the sediment diversion project. Instead, the port is up to its neck in a murky and thus far constitutionally-prohibited deal to block the diversion project with a 20-million-barrel oil terminal in its place.

If you think the history of the St. Rosalie plantation property is a convoluted tale – just wait till we reveal the details of this latest deal. This scheme includes proposed pipelines, pawned permits, and promised payments in lieu of taxes. Its success is dependent on lawmakers and voters approving a Constitutional Amendment that would legalize the terms of the deal. It is also contingent on federal Corps of Engineers and Clean Water permits and state Coastal Use permits being granted.

And, for the current year, the Plaquemines Parish Assessor assessed the land involved at just $2.1 million, or 15% of its true value, which would mean the land is worth approximately $14 million, less than half of its purchase price.