GARY — It is now up to state environmental regulators to determine if a private company should be allowed to build a municipal waste processing and recycling facility next to a charter school in the city’s Glen Park neighborhood.
The principal behind the Maya Energy project, James Ventura, a former East Chicago councilman, sought to build a substantially similar facility in 2011 in Chicago Heights, Illinois, EPA documents and federal court records show.
In Gary, Maya Energy wants to build a $50 million, 165,000-square-foot facility at 2727 W. 35th Ave., a 35-acre field less than 100 feet from the Steel City Academy charter school. They would accept waste and construction/demo materials from Lake County and the Chicago area.
Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s public comment period on the controversial Maya Energy project closed Monday. A spokesperson for IDEM said it will make a determination once they review all public comments and Maya's application materials, but the department has not offered a timeline.
Maya touts job creation, $50 million investment
The Maya Energy project has been in motion for more than a year and has garnered zoning approval from the city.
Maya Energy argues the project would bring more than 100 jobs to the area, and the school did not yet exist when the company first eyed the location and the city signed off.
The Gary City Council initially rejected the school’s request to locate there two years ago, questioning the industrial area and the proximity to the regional fire and police training center and firing range. The council ultimately signed off and the charter opened in August 2016.
Opponents — including Steel City Academy and the Hoosier Environmental Council — have appealed to IDEM in recent weeks with hundreds of hand-written letters, urging the state to deny the project’s application.
Sam Henderson, staff attorney for HEC, said IDEM should deny the permit because he believes the project doesn’t fill “a local or regional need” for solid waste processing and recycling in Indiana.
If approved, Maya Energy would process up to 2,400 tons of waste per day, nearly half of which would not be recyclable, according to permit documents. Non-recyclable material could be sold off to companies to be burned off into usable fuel, or shipped to a landfill, according to the permit application.
Similar plan, new name
Under the company name Indiana Recycling & Renewable Fuels LLC, Ventura sought to operate a refuse and recycling servicer and processor in 2011, EPA documents and federal court filings show.
The Illinois project ultimately fell through, and in June 2016, Ventura filed a lawsuit against the land owner, alleging Chicago Heights Land Management Inc. and Earth Management breached a purchasing contract and never closed on the property. The two companies, during this time, transferred ownership and control of IRRF’s operating certification to Earth Management.
The lawsuit was filed, in the Northern District of Indiana, around the same time Ventura sought approval from Gary City Council to operate the Maya Energy facility.
The federal case was dismissed in March 2017 for Ventura’s failure to state a claim, and the defendants argued they never signed the purchasing contract for the property. Court records show Ventura’s attorneys withdrew from the case after he failed to pay them.
“Essentially, he couldn’t get it coming to Chicago Heights, so they came to Gary, and Gary ends up being the dumping ground of last resort,” Henderson said. “The facility is not really filling a need in Indiana. It’s just a way of handling Chicago garbage.”
Attempts to reach Ventura, through email and a spokesman, last week were unsuccessful.
Gary City Council President Ron Brewer said neither Ventura's 2011 business venture in Chicago Heights, or the lawsuit, was ever disclosed to the board by Maya Energy. He added that he's unsure if that would have influenced the council's decision.
Opponents have called on the Gary City Council to rescind its approval of the project, but Brewer has said it would be unfair to the company if they were to reverse course without reasonable cause.
Only if they find Maya Energy substantially violated or deviated from the project description as first presented, they could reconsider, he said.
Brewer said he will schedule a special Gary City Council meeting before month's end to discuss the Maya Energy project.
Repay: Decision in IDEM's hands
Dan Repay, executive director of the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission, told The Times the Commission signed a letter of intent to lease the property with Maya Energy in April 2016, but ultimately signed a licensing agreement with the company in January 2017.
Henderson raised questions with The Times 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 be a big practical difference, but from a legal standpoint, it’s a huge difference. ... 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," Henderson said.
Repay said the licensing agreement becomes null and void if Maya Energy fails to obtain the appropriate state permit. And, he added, it’s up to IDEM — not the commission — to decide if Maya can operate there under the licensing agreement.
“That’s not my decision,” Repay said.
Steel City Academy students, parents and staff protested the project at Gary City Hall earlier this month and continued their fight Wednesday night at the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission meeting.