GARY — Steel City Academy students and parents had one message for City Council members Tuesday night: Maya Energy is not welcome here.
Pressure mounted on city officials as more than 160 charter school students descended upon Tuesday night’s City Council meeting at the Genesis Center to protest the city’s refusal to reject Maya Energy’s plans to locate a waste/recycling facility across the street from the school.
The company has proposed a $50 million, 165,000-square-foot municipal recycling facility at 2727 W. 35th Ave. — “96.4 feet across from our school, our children,” said Principal Katie Kirley.
The project has been in motion for more than a year, but Kirley said she first learned of the waste facility just a few short weeks ago.
She and her students have concerns about the reduction in natural landscape near the school, along with noise, pollution and the anticipated increase in truck traffic.
Classmates held signs above their heads that read "Recycling for Chicago. What's in it for Gary?" and "My future matters more than your dump!" as they quietly formed a semicircle around the Genesis Center hall where City Council members met.
Adreine Askew, 15, spoke on behalf of them, wearing her #WeAreSteelCity T-shirt.
“Our education is more important than a waste management facility, and more importantly, our education must be the most important to our city leaders,” she said. “Our students have more things to worry about, like ISTEP, and next year, our 10th-graders have to worry about colleges.”
Gary approved zoning for the project in May, followed up with the City Council’s approval of the project. Council President Ronald Brewer argued Tuesday when the City Council granted Maya Energy a special-use permit in 2016, the school didn’t exist.
Steel City Academy was granted its special-use permit that same year.
Some council members, including Herbert Smith Jr., applauded the students for protesting and exercising free speech.
"I never voted for it, and would never vote for it. Thank you for coming out and fighting for something you believe in," Smith said.
The principal of the project, James Ventura, has said Maya Energy would 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.
He said Maya Energy has gone through “an extensive site zoning and permitting process,” which required many meetings with Gary officials and stakeholders through public meetings.
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He added his company has positioned itself to work closely with Lake County Solid Waste District’s “Zero Waste” program and that he wants Maya to reach the goal of recycling 50 percent of its waste.
The company will pay an estimated $550,000 in annual property taxes, according to the company.
Brewer said the city has “no position” on the project. When students and community members urged the council to rescind its approval of the project Tuesday night, Brewer said they would first have to consider the legal ramifications of doing so.
The council may be able to rescind, but only if the company "violated or deviated" away from the project description and application as it was presented to the council initially, Brewer said after the meeting.
“That’s why I want to talk to our attorney team, see what can be done. I’m not sure if the council (can do anything), because I don’t see them having breached their contract, but I’m open to any discussion the council wants to have,” he said.
Opponents say the neighborhood — near the Borman Expressway — is already 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.
The facility 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.
Instead, 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.
Operating hours will be from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays — with limited hours on Saturday.
The company is still waiting on approval from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management for a solid waste processing facility permit. Hazardous waste would not be allowed at the site, the company has said.
The Hoosier Environmental Council has been arguing against the facility for at least the past year.
IDEM is still taking public comments until Monday.
Kirley said students plan to hand deliver a petition with more than 300 signatures to IDEM before Monday's deadline. They have requested an IDEM public hearing.
Brewer said he is open to holding a special meeting on the project, and the school's opposition, in the near future.