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GARY — Parents and students of Steel City Academy spoke passionately Thursday night against a private company's plans to build a municipal solid waste recovery and recycling facility not far from their charter school on 35th Avenue. 

At a community meeting, sophomore Leilani Atkins, 15, said Maya Energy LLC's proposed 165,000-square-foot municipal recycling facility near her school, 2650 W. 35th Ave., "poses a threat to our school, us kids, our atmosphere and the water." Atkins and other students are members of Year Zero, a student-led club that promotes a cleaner environment in Gary.

Atkins sentiments were echoed by the more than 60 students, community members and school administrators in attendance, along with the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Community Strategy Group. 

Steel City Academy serves about 290 students, with plans for expansion next year to include kindergarten through 11th grade. The founders chose its 18-acre property — which is across the street from the proposed facility — because there was high-demand for a junior high and high school facility south of 25th Avenue in Glen Park, said Katie Kirley, executive director and principal.

"One of our core values is power. It means we cannot sit on the sidelines, and we have to be empowered, amplify our voice, and speak on what we want to be just, right and equitable," Kirley said.

Maya Energy LLC has proposed a $50 million, 165,000-square-foot municipal recycling facility on land it would lease for 50 years from the Little Calumet River Basin Commission. A consultant for Maya Energy, Matt Reardon, said the project would create between 100 and 124 high-paying jobs.   

Sam Henderson, staff attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council, argued the permit application for the facility at 2727 W. 35th Ave. is "vague" and inadequately addresses concerns about noise, traffic, fugitive releases and air and water discharges. And, when approved in 2016 by the city's zoning board, the project was misrepresented as merely a paper recycling facility. 

The project has already received approval from the City Council and the city's Zoning Board, but the company is still waiting on approval from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management for an solid waste facility permit. The City Council granted Maya Energy a special use permit in 2016, around the same time Steel City Academy was granted its special use permit.

The meeting turned heated later in the night when Reardon fielded questions from a visibly upset crowd of parents, community members and students, along with Jimmy Ventura, an East Chicago resident who is behind the project and is listed as project contact on the state's permit application.

Often interrupted by angry parents and community members, Ventura defended the project, dubbing it a recycling facility that will accept construction and demolition debris and handle only municipal solid waste such as cardboard, paper and plastics.

"I came here to dispel rumors and lies. This is a recycling facility," he said. "We are building a state-of-the-art facility, not a dump."

Hoosier Environmental Council's Henderson argued the facility will process 2,400 tons of waste per day, much of which will be processed into fuel pellets for incineration and sold off to other companies that will turn the materials into usable fuel and energy.  

"No fuels will be burned and Maya is not seeking permitting to do so. Remainder waste that is suitable can be purchased by companies that are permitted for such activities. Maya Energy would be legally obligated to operate within the confines of any permit issued," Reardon emailed in a statement to The Times. 

As parents grew angrier, Ventura offered to work with the school by "offering scholarships" to Steel City students.

Reardon and Ventura lashed out against the Hoosier Environmental Council for not attending past public hearings and for the sudden outcry against this project in the final steps of approval. He said the school did not exist when Maya sought out the site location.

Residents also have until March 12 to submit comments on the proposal to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

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Public safety reporter

Lauren covers breaking news, crime and courts for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet covering government, public policy, and the region’s heroin epidemic. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.