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MUNSTER — Steel City Academy students, parents and their principal continued their fight against the Maya Energy recovery/recycling project Wednesday night, this time appealing to the land owner: the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission.

Maya Energy wants to build a $50 million, 165,000-square-foot municipal recycling facility at 2727 W. 35th Ave., a soybean field owned by the commission that's situated across the street from the charter school at 2650 W. 35th Ave. 

"This school's property backs up to the Little Calumet River trail and I will tell you we honor it, we love it, we use it for learning every single week," Principal Katie Kirley said during her appeal to the board Wednesday. "If you visit, you'll see Year Zero, our climate change and environmental justice group, studying our wildlife. You'll see our partnership with the Gary Nature Project, setting up community hikes and environmental explorations."

Despite the natural environment Kirley spoke highly of, the Gary City Council initially rejected the school’s request to locate there, questioning the proximity to the regional fire and police training center and firing range. But the council ultimately signed off and the charter opened in August 2016.   

The school is housed at the former ARC building, and serves 280 students with plans to expand next year to include kindergarten and 11th grade. 

Maya Energy has argued the school was not in existence when the company eyed the Little Calumet River Basin 35-acre parcel and the city signed off on the project.

If approved, Maya Energy would process up to 2,400 tons — or 4.8 million pounds — of waste per day, including paper, plastic, wood, glass, metals and construction and demolition debris, nearly half of which would not be recyclable, according to permit documents. Nonrecyclable material could be sold off to other companies to be burned off into usable fuel, or shipped to a landfill, according to the solid waste facility permit application.

Maya Energy has said the project could bring as many as 124 high-paying jobs, taking in municipal waste and construction and demo materials from contractors and waste haulers in Lake County and the Chicago area.

The school on Monday hand-delivered hundreds of opposition letters to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management in Indianapolis, which closed the public comment period Monday and is now considering whether to grant the company a solid waste facility permit. 

Parents speak out

The Maya Energy project has been in motion for more than a year, but students and staff say they first learned of the waste facility earlier this month when the Hoosier Environmental Council focused light to the issue.

Brandon Atkins, of Gary, whose daughter Leilani attends Steel City Academy in Gary, said, the diesel fumes from the hundreds of daily trucks could exacerbate her daughter's asthma. 

"Maya is a big health threat with them hauling (2,400 tons) of trash a day," she said. "I don't feel, as a parent, it's safe to have that many trucks running back and forth by the school." she said. 

Opponents say the neighborhood — near the Borman Expressway — already is overburdened with air pollution from the trucking industry and Maya Energy’s operations involve significant additional truck traffic, along with idling trucks and emissions from refueling. 

Commissioner Anthony Broadnax and others applauded students for coming out Wednesday and standing up for what they feel is right. 

Repay: Decision in IDEM's hands

Sam Henderson, staff attorney with HEC, raised questions with The Times this week about Maya Energy operating on LCRBDC-owned land if the company does not have exclusive ownership or a leasing agreement with the commission.

Under IDEM rules, an applicant seeking a solid waste facility permit must have a lease or own the property in question. 

“It may not a big practical difference, but from a legal standpoint, it’s a huge difference. A lease gives you a right to exclude people from the property. A license just says you can go on my land and do something. There’s a good reason for that (IDEM) requirement, to be sure you have the legal authority to control the property when using it for solid waste processing.”

Dan Repay, executive director of the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission, told The Times the LCRBDC signed a letter of intent to lease with Maya Energy in April 2016, but ultimately signed a licensing agreement with the company in January 2017.

The licensing agreement becomes null and void if Maya Energy fails to obtain the appropriate state permit to operate there, he added.

It’s up to IDEM — not the commission — to decide if Maya can operate a solid waste facility there under the licensing agreement. 

“That’s not my decision,” Repay said.

The commission's attorney, Dave Wickland, told The Times what they have with Maya Energy is "clearly a licensing agreement" — not a lease agreement. 

"It gives us flexibility, and more importantly, more control, over what happens on the property," Wickland said. "This gives the commission more oversight over what the company does at the site."

Flooding concerns raised

The state conveyed the land to LCRBDC in 1981 for the purposes of flood control, but Repay said Wednesday night the land is listed as surplus, and no longer considered essential for flood control in the area. 

At Wednesday's meeting, Steve Truchan, owner of Gary Bridge & Iron Co., 3700 Roosevelt St. in Gary, said he believes flooding along 35th Avenue will worsen if Maya Energy paves over the 35-acre farmland for its facility.

While much of the area is zoned industrial, Truchan said Maya Energy is a poor fit for the neighborhood, with the school next door and a number of fast food restaurants and businesses to the east.

Repay said he doesn't see flooding being an issue, noting a pump station is located on the other side of 35th Avenue.

The principal behind the project is James Ventura, a former East Chicago councilman. Through a spokesman, Ventura could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.  

IDEM has said it will make a determination on the solid waste facility once the department reviews all public comments and Maya's application materials, but has not offered a timeline. 

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.