GARY — This fall, state environmental authorities were leaning toward signing off on a solid waste facility for the controversial Maya Energy project, having sent a draft version of the approved permit to project leaders, records show.
At the time, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management had reportedly been unaware that the Gary City Council withdrew its approval of the company's zoning variance the night before, on Oct. 16.
Sam Henderson, staff attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Project, a fierce opponent of the solid waste facility proposed next to Steel City Academy, a charter school, said the fact that such an approval would even be considered by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management “shows how dangerously weak the protections for human health and the environment in Indiana have become.”
The discovery of IDEM's draft approval came as James Ventura, principal for Maya Energy, sent a letter to IDEM on Nov. 29, requesting they defer the company's solid waste facility permit process so he and city leaders work on outstanding issues, including zoning approvals.
Ventura asserted in the letter that IDEM’s Office of Land Quality had approved Maya Energy’s permit on Oct. 17, but that it was “never issued apparently” due to the Gary City Council’s motion to reconsider zoning approval the day prior.
Henderson said it's "deeply troubling" that IDEM would even consider granting the permit.
"Like the rest of the public, HEC has not had the opportunity to review this draft approval, so it is not possible to comment in detail. But when so many of Indiana's solid waste regulations were written specifically to prohibit irresponsible proposals like Maya Energy, it's deeply troubling that IDEM would even consider granting this permit. The legal, moral and practical issues with the Maya Energy proposal have been set out in hundreds of public comments that were submitted to IDEM, including several detailed comments in which the HEC joined," Henderson said.
Ventura’s claim that the project has been approved is contradictory to an email IDEM sent to The Times on Oct. 18, which said the agency had not yet made a final decision on the permit.
Last week, an IDEM spokesman clarified it is standard practice to provide applicants with draft copies of proposed permit decisions in advance of final approval.
"We are not required to provide a draft decision to the applicant, but we do this as a courtesy ... IDEM has not yet made a final decision on this application," Sneed said.
IDEM has agreed to defer Ventura's permit process.
Henderson applauded Gary Councilwoman Ragen Hatcher's push for the entire council to rescind its approval of the project Oct. 16.
"Of course, a draft approval is not an approval, so Maya Energy's claim that IDEM 'approved' its application appears to be entirely false," Henderson said. "But in any event, this revelation shows how crucial the Gary Common Council's role has been in stopping this project. Indeed, Ragen Hatcher's swift and thoughtful action may have truly saved the day."