Gary group files complaint over IDEM’s approval of waste processing facility

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A group of Gary residents is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make the Indiana Department of Environmental Management revoke a permit for a waste processing facility and conduct an environmental justice analysis of the site.

Gary Advocates for Responsible Development filed a complaint with the EPA on Monday, alleging IDEM violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by renewing the permit near a predominantly African American neighborhood and across the street from a school. It’s an area, according to the complaint, that already has a history of high levels of pollution.

The group is also requesting that IDEM create a permitting policy that complies with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and incorporates environmental justice concerns into its permitting decisions on an ongoing basis.

The group is represented by the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

“U.S. EPA cannot allow IDEM to continue ignoring its responsibilities under the federal civil rights laws,” Howard Learner, ELPC president and executive director, said in a statement.

According to the most recent census estimates, Gary is about 13% white and 78% Black or African American.

IDEM is “allowing environmental injustice to continue unabated,” the complaint alleges, by approving the waste processing facility near the neighborhood of Glen Park and less than 100 feet away from the Steel City Academy charter school.

The group originally appealed IDEM’s permit renewal for Maya Energy on its own, but IDEM’s Office of Environmental Adjudication found “no statutes or regulations authorizing IDEM to deny a permit based solely on environmental justice concerns.”

The office granted Maya Energy’s motion to dismiss the challenge March 15.

The complaint says IDEM’s policy “misreads” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and exacerbates the “disparate siting” of “air pollution permits” in Gary and northern Lake County.

Indiana Lawyer has reached out to IDEM for comment.

The complaint details the history of pollution in northern Lake County. Gary — and other parts of the area in northwest Indiana commonly called “the Region” — includes historically redlined neighborhoods that were “repeatedly subjected to intense industrial development and toxic land uses,” according to the complaint.

The EPA has already weighed in on the issue, with the director for air and radiation in the region that includes Gary writing in a March 2022 letter to IDEM that the agency “has determined that the proposed location of the facility raises potential environmental justice concerns.”

In the letter, John Mooney said the EPA acknowledges the work IDEM has done in adding transparency to this permitting process — including a virtual public hearing last year — but added the agency recommends, among other things, that IDEM conduct an environmental justice analysis “of appropriate scope” to inform the permitting decision.

Gary Advocates for Responsible Development cited public involvement in its complaint with the EPA, saying IDEM’s belief that environmental justice concerns can be addressed through its “supposed commitment to public involvement” ignores the purpose of Title VI.

The complaint includes maps from the EPA — using the agency’s EJScreen tool — that show things such as a lower life expectancy and higher rates of asthma in the areas surrounding the proposed site.

“The EJScreen data supports a logical inference that operation of the Maya facility will only increase the numerous health disparities the local community suffers,” the complaint says.

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