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Gary City Hall

MUNSTER — In a 6-1 vote Wednesday, the Little Calumet River Basin Development Commission approved a motion to extend a lease agreement with Maya Energy LLC to build a controversial recycling and waste facility near a charter school in Gary’s Glen Park neighborhood.

The LCRBDC owns the land at 2727 W. 35th Ave. where Maya Energy’s principal James Ventura, a former East Chicago councilman, seeks to build a $50 million, 165,000-square foot facility on the 35-acre field less than 100 feet from Steel City Academy charter school.

This facility would accept waste and construction/demolition materials from Lake County and the Chicago area. Some of the material would be recycled. Non-recyclable materials could be sold off to companies to be burned off as usable fuel, or shipped to a landfill, according to the permit application.

Dozens of individuals, including Steel City Academy students and staff, filled the meeting room at Munster Town Hall after staging a protest along Ridge Road.

During the outdoor protest rally, Pam Eanes, of Munster, with the Northwest Indiana Progressive Democrats of America said the LCRBDC “are not doing what their charter was set up to be – clean up the Little Calumet River, maintain the levees and protect our homes.”

When Maya Energy received a permit from Gary, “they were to be recycling paper brought in by under 10 trucks per day,” Eanes said. “Now they will be bringing in solid waste from Chicago with 200 semitrucks a day and sending back about 100 trucks to Grayslake, Illinois.”

Eanes also said her group feared the acreage that now absorbs water will be paved over causing run-off of rainwater that could lead to flooding.

Daniel O’Brien, Steel City Academy post-secondary success coordinator, accompanied the eight students to the protest and the meeting along with Principal Katie Kirley.

“We believe that the Maya project will be incredibly detrimental to our school, the city of Gary and in particular the environment of Glen Park,” O’Brien said. “The Little Calumet River Trail that’s behind the school is worth protecting from contamination.”

In his opening remarks, LCRDBC Chairman William Baker welcomed those in attendance and asked everyone to “be respectful.”

“All those up here have experience in the private sector – engineering, construction, finance, real estate. None of us work for the government,” Baker said.

The Maya Energy lease agreement came at the end of the commission’s meeting agenda.

Commissioner Tom Wichlinski made the motion to extend the lease agreement with Maya Energy. Two other commissioners provided their views of the project during the discussion phase before a vote was taken.

LeVon Whittaker, the governor’s appointment from the city of Gary, expressed his opposition to the project. He noted that no one from Maya Energy appeared before the commission “to discuss the ramifications and layout of the project. That would be helpful in the future, not limited to Maya Energy.”

“This is not a plausible project in this region,” Whittaker said. “It is in a non-secluded, more residential area.”

Commissioner David Castellanos, the governor’s appointment from the Board of Lake County Commissioners and also a Gary resident, said he is in favor of the Maya Energy project because “it is going to bring jobs to Gary … and bring $10,000 to $15,000 a month needed by Gary.”

Castellanos added, “I’m tired of African-Americans and Latinos in jail because they can’t find a job. … This is going to be a pristine development. It’s not going to be a hazardous waste facility.”

Groans and protests came from those in attendance during Castellanos’ presentation. However, Baker quickly stopped those outbursts noting the rules of commission meetings. The public comment segment at the end of the meeting provides three minutes for each speaker, Baker said.

Whittaker responded to Castellanos’ comments, noting, “I, too, know the ramifications of high unemployment.” However, he said that “if you run what looks like hazardous waste, you can’t go anywhere but down.”

In the final vote, Whittaker cast the only “nay” vote. In addition to Castellanos, commissioners voting for the lease agreement included Wichlinski, Thomas Gozdecki, Derek Nimetz, Ronald Ware Jr. and Baker. Commissioner Anthony Broadnax was absent.