Steel City Academy students Breonna Marshall, Danielle Sipp, and Makayla Trambles have mobilized against a planned waste-to-energy center across the street from the school. Credit: Kari Lydersen / Energy News Network

Students, staff and parents say a waste-to-energy facility doesn’t belong across the street from a Gary, Indiana, charter school.

Jimmy Ventura grew up and still lives in an East Chicago, Indiana, neighborhood that’s among the worst Superfund sites in the country.

Cleanup is ongoing for lead and other contamination caused by smelters and a chemical plant, but Ventura, like others, was angry that the government for years didn’t make clear to residents the extent of the contamination and risk.

That feeling and a life-long love of animals and nature motivated him to pursue waste management, recycling and “green energy,” as he tells it.

He bills his latest endeavor, called Maya Energy, as an ecologically sound way to recycle and turn garbage into “refuse-derived fuel,” while providing economic development in Gary, Indiana, right near East Chicago.

But critics, including students, staff and parents of a charter school that sits across the street from Maya Energy’s proposed site, see it differently.

They see Maya Energy as a glorified “dump” that would bring stinking refuse and heavy truck traffic to the oasis of education and peace they are trying to carve out in Gary. The fact that Maya Energy proposes to accept much of its waste from Chicago only adds insult to injury, as they see it, continuing a legacy of treating the industrial, impoverished city as a repository for the operations and waste products that richer cities don’t want.

“They [Chicago] are more wealthy than us, and definitely more famous,” said Danielle Sipp, 14, a student at Steel City Academy, the charter school that opened in fall of 2016 in a low-slung building directly across a narrow road from Maya Energy’s proposed location. “I think they targeted us because they’re like, ‘Gary is just a small town,’ and nobody cares about us. We’re just poor Gary and ‘scary Gary,’ and we’re just looking for anything [to provide jobs]. But that’s not true at all, not true at all.”

Steel City Academy charter school sits across the street from the site of a proposed waste-to-energy facility.

Start of a movement

Steel City Academy principal and co-founder Katie Kirley said she was horrified to learn of the Maya Energy proposal in February through a news article. It was immediately a topic for the school’s environmental justice club, Year Zero.

In early March they held a meeting at the school to tell the community about the issue, and more than 100 people showed up. At Gary’s city council, students stood throughout a meeting holding signs in silent protest. They also traveled to a meeting in Munster, Indiana, of the commission that oversees flood control in the area. And they went to Indianapolis to hand-deliver comments to the state department of environmental management, which is still considering Maya Energy’s application for a solid waste permit.

Student Makayla Trambles, 16, said that at the Gary council meeting she was disappointed that citizens were limited to three-minute comments, that councilmen spoke in low voices the public couldn’t hear, and that she felt the mayor was looking at her phone and not paying attention. But she was proud to see Kirley take the floor.

“Ms. Kirley has a loud voice, she made sure she got everyone’s attention, and she did go past the three minutes,” said Trambles. “I thought that was very powerful. People did listen.”

Kirley is upset that neither company, city or state officials notified the school of the waste facility plans, and she only learned of it through the media. She thinks Maya Energy intentionally used an address in earlier filings with the city that was more than 300 feet from the school, to avoid a requirement that neighbors within that distance be notified. She said the closest part of the parcel Maya would use is just 96 feet from the school.

Now she sees the campaign against Maya Energy as a valuable learning experience for students who want to change outsiders’ view of Gary.

“This shows our school’s might and our grit, our purpose too, and our power,” said student Erin Addison, 14, who along with his twin brother and other students is producing a podcast about the issue. “It’s basically showing all our core values.”

Kirley noted that students in the Year Zero club traveled to New Orleans to study the lasting impacts of Hurricane Katrina and the botched governmental response. “This is much smaller scale, but they’re drawing parallels,” she said. “Our kids are fully able to grapple with these issues and recognize their own agency.”

Steel City Academy students Marshawn Severson, Evan Addison, Erin Addison, and Andrew Arevalo are producing a podcast about their fight against a planned waste facility next to their school.

A fascination with waste

In Ventura’s youth, like today, the industrial, economically struggling areas of Northwest Indiana were tough places to grow up. Since much of the steel industry and other employers closed up, moved overseas and cut jobs in decades past, the area became plagued by unemployment, violence, disinvestment, crumbling infrastructure, population loss and political corruption.

But Ventura dove into that challenging environment with an enterprising spirit, becoming an elected official and businessman.

In 2007, he was elected to the East Chicago City Council. In 2010, Ventura along with his son and several other city employees were fired from city jobs by then-mayor George Pabey. Ventura, who lost his post as assistant parks director, and other fired employees alleged they were the victims of political retaliation by Pabey, who was under federal indictment and later went to prison for corruption.

In the 2011 election, Ventura lost his City Council seat to Robert Battle, who was later charged with murder and drug trafficking, then re-elected even while in jail.

While Ventura tried unsuccessfully to retake the city council seat, he also became increasingly interested in waste management. He recounts a trip to the Dominican Republic, where he was considering investing in a project. He said he cried upon seeing children living in a dump, picking through the trash for things they could reuse.

He was intrigued by the idea of tire-derived fuel and refuse-derived fuel, turning waste into “chunks” of material resembling coal, as he describes it, that can be burned to produce energy.

“I did a lot of research, I just got hooked on it,” said Ventura. “I started going crazy researching it, traveling, looking at different technologies all over the place. I studied the market, the effects of it, positive, negative. I got completely immersed in it, I just loved it, and it’s something positive for the environment.”

He tried to build a waste and recycling facility in Chicago Heights, a Chicago suburb not far from the Indiana border. In 2011, he sued the landowner for failing to complete the deal, the Northwest Indiana Times reported; the lawsuit was dismissed and Ventura’s attorneys withdrew after he reportedly didn’t pay them.

Around that same time Ventura launched the idea for Maya Energy, named after his niece.

Maya Energy is a client of the consulting firm run by Matt Reardon, the husband of Indiana State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon. Candelaria Reardon’s 2017 statement of economic interests notes Reardon’s interest in Maya Energy valued at more than $5,000, as reported by the Northwest Indiana Gazette.

Reardon said that currently he is representing Maya Energy in his consulting capacity, and whether he might have an ownership stake in the future “would depend if the project moves forward” and how it is structured. He blamed attention to his role and opposition to the project on his wife’s “political opponent,” whom he declined to name.

Changing stories

The management of waste and debris has long been a controversial issue in the industrial, impoverished region including the southern reaches of Chicago, its southern suburbs and Northwest Indiana. Decades ago, Chicago placed a moratorium on new landfills after an ardent campaign by environmental justice activists in and around the Altgeld Gardens public housing project adjacent to major landfills on the city’s South Side. The moratorium’s status and enforcement has continued to be an issue of political intrigue in Chicago.

A waste-to-energy incinerator in nearby Robbins, Illinois, was shut down in 2000 amid financial troubles and charges it was causing major health risks for the surrounding poor, mostly black residents. Ventura said he visited the Robbins incinerator and found it a shame the “state of the art” facility was shut down, since it was keeping waste out of landfills. At least one other waste-to-energy plant has also been proposed in that area.

Meanwhile Gary is infamous for its plethora of vacant and deteriorating buildings, causing a television show about “life after people” to feature the city.

Gary officials have debated how to deal with the demolition waste that results from taking down abandoned and dangerous buildings. A state bill was proposed and defeated earlier this year that would have allowed construction and demolition landfills to be built within 600 feet of residences.

Maya Energy’s permit application calls for accepting about 800 tons of clean construction and demolition waste per day, and 1,600 tons of municipal solid waste per day. Reardon said most of the construction and demolition waste would be recycled onsite, and sold in bales of material to outside buyers.

Ventura said much of the waste would be processed into refuse-derived fuel, basically pellets that could be sold to industries or power plants that would burn it to produce energy. He said he couldn’t discuss what companies might buy the fuel because of nondisclosure agreements. He said about half of the waste coming into Maya Energy would be turned into energy feedstock, about a third of the material would be recycled and about 10 percent would go to a landfill.

Speaking separately, Reardon said the facility would not produce refuse-derived fuel, though other companies could buy their sorted waste and make fuel out of it themselves. “This really is not an energy project – this is a municipal recycling facility, a green manufacturing project,” he said. “There’s no pellets made, there’s no bricks made, there would be a remainder product shredded at the end of the recycling process that would be bailed and sold… whatever you couldn’t have recycled would be used as a potential fuel source by those companies or would end up in a landfill.”

Such seemingly changing plans are among the reason that critics oppose the proposal.

“It’s generally concerning when you have a waste processing facility that doesn’t have a clear picture of what’s going into it,” said Sam Henderson, an attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council, which has filed comments and objections with various agencies about Maya Energy.

Maya Energy has received the major permits and zoning variances it needs from the city of Gary and its air permit from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). The only significant permit outstanding is the solid waste permit it needs from IDEM. The Steel City Academy students are hopeful that permit will be denied.

“They need one more permit before they can start building, so our goal is to stop them from getting that one permit,” said Addison.

Differing visions

Ventura says he supports the school’s mission and empathizes with kids growing up in low-income, polluted areas like he did. He is hurt that he finds himself squaring off with the school community. He says he would like to partner with the school, to mentor students and train them in recycling technology. Meanwhile Ventura and Reardon note that Maya Energy had made its proposal and applied for permits before the school opened. And Reardon questioned why the founders chose an industrial location for the school, initially vetoed by regulators, near a police gun range.

“I don’t have any comment about the school’s choice to locate in a manufacturing district next to a gun range on a truck route. That was their decision,” Reardon said.

Kirley said she was determined to open the school in the Glen Park neighborhood of Gary, which did not have a junior high or high school and appeared to be an “education desert.” The school is on 80 acres near the Little Calumet River, which she said provides a rich opportunity to build a large campus with amenities for parents and chances to learn about the natural environment. Currently that natural environment includes the land where Maya Energy would be located: a refuge for deer, birds and coyotes that is now overgrown with trees and phragmites.

“There’s a lot of wildlife out there,” said Addison. “We even have eagles. If we get that factory built, anything in that radius, the animals will just have to move somewhere, they’ll just have to go.”

The school now has about 300 students in grades seven through nine. By 2025, they aim to have 1,120 students in pre-K through 12th grade.

Students and staff are worried Maya Energy would completely transform the atmosphere around their school, creating noise, odors, constant truck traffic, diesel air pollution from trucks and air emissions from the plant, and possible water contamination during the heavy rains and floods that are common on the low-lying land.

Maya Energy’s permit applications say it would receive waste from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day, with processing continuing until 11 p.m.  The waste would be delivered by truck, with the public also allowed to drop off waste during certain hours. Critics say the narrow two-lane road, with no shoulder, is ill-equipped to handle this traffic, and students and parents who walk, bike or drive to school would be at risk.

Henderson also notes that permits call for Maya Energy’s leachate, about 40 gallons a day, to be discharged into Gary’s sewer system. Like many cities with aging sewer systems that handle both rainwater and municipal sewage, Gary releases untreated sewage into waterways when pipes become overwhelmed during storms. The city is under a federal consent decree based on past violations of the Clean Water Act due to combined sewer overflows.

“It’s one thing when you have a fully functioning sewer, it’s another thing when you have a sewer system that may not be able to handle that material,” said Henderson. “That gets into the broader environmental justice issues here. When you have a lot of legacy waste problems and sites that are not addressed, or only very slowly being addressed, you have a cumulative impact from adding another source of pollution into this area.”

Reardon said it would be unfortunate for the state to deny the solid waste permit or for the project to be otherwise derailed.

“If there’s no permit issued, there’s no project, there’s no jobs created, no half million dollars in property taxes, no host fees for Gary, no $59 million investment,” said Reardon, who has a long history working in development and urban planning in Northwest Indiana.

Members of the Year Zero club at Steel City Academy say that however the Maya Energy issue turns out, the experience has meant they will be involved in environmental justice and community organizing for years to come.

Sipp noted that after speaking out at meetings, “I really felt empowered, I felt like we should do this more often. If we stood up for ourselves like we stood up at the community meeting, we could actually change Gary for the better.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.