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Gary advocates ask for review on state's decision on waste-to-fuel plant

An aerial view of Fulcrum BioEnergy's Sierra BioFuels Plant in Storey County, Nevada.
Courtesy of Google Maps
An aerial view of Fulcrum BioEnergy's Sierra BioFuels Plant in Storey County, Nevada.

Advocates in Gary are asking a judge to review the state’s decision to grant a permit for a plant that would turn trash into jet fuel. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management recently approved an air permit for Fulcrum BioEnergy.

Both advocates and the Environmental Protection Agency have raised environmental justice concerns about the plant’s location. People living in the area are more at risk from air pollution than most parts of the state, according to the EPA. There are also more lower-income, Black, and Hispanic residents.

But IDEM said it only has the authority to regulate facilities one at a time, not based on total pollution in an area.

"IDEM, [Office of Air Quality] cannot resolve the historical issues that lead to the development of the area through an individual permitting decision," according to a statement from the agency. "IDEM, OAQ believes that these concerns can be balanced with IDEM, OAQ’s commitment to public involvement in the permitting process to ensure all people have an equitable opportunity to participate in the permitting decision."

Kimmie Gordon is the lead organizer for Gary Advocates for Responsible Development (GARD), which opposes the plant. She said IDEM's response shows the agency doesn't care about Gary or that it has been disproportionately affected by pollution.

"We're not concerned about your health," she said. "We're not concerned about the health of the city as a whole or the people within it, we're here to do a job."

Gordon said she hopes the permit review sends a message to IDEM.

“We're not going to continue to sit back and allow this to happen to our city and to our people," she said.

GARD is questioning whether granting the permit violates IDEM's own nondiscrimination policy and civil rights laws. The group said the state should also know where the material to make the fuel will be stored before approving the permit.

Fulcrum BioEnergy recently withdrew its solid waste permit because the material it converts into jet fuel is no longer considered waste under a new Indiana law.

"The feedstock that we convert into fuel is now classified and defined as a commodity that — in a process that results in a product, so in our case, a liquid fuel. So it's not a solid waste," said Flyn van Ewijk, director of project development with Fulcrum BioEnergy.

Though van Ewijk said the facilities that process the trash into that feedstock will have to have solid waste permits. He said one of those facilities is on Chicago's west side. The company is still deciding where to place the other.

Fulcrum BioEnergy’s other plant in Nevada hasn’t yet produced fuel — advocates say that makes it hard to tell just how much emissions the proposed plant would create in Gary.

Van Ewijk said getting the air permit was a big milestone for Fulcrum.

“We're very confident in IDEM’s decision to issue that permit based on the merits of our application," he said. "And we will continue to work with IDEM and the Office of Environmental Adjudication as that process goes on."

Van Ewijk said the company plans to integrate as much new technology to reduce pollution as it can, such as electric semi trucks and rooftop solar.

He said Fulcrum is still working on engineering and getting other local and state approvals before financing the project. The company hopes to start construction by the end of next year.

EPA works to help states consider total pollution when approving permits

“It's not enough anymore to say, ‘Does a permit simply, you know, meet the requirements of the law as written today?’ There are other factors that we think can come into the decision making process," said John Mooney, director of EPA's air and radiation division in Region 5.

Mooney said even if IDEM doesn’t have the authority to approve or reject a permit based on all the pollution in an area — there are likely still things the agency can do like improving pollution monitoring and transparency with communities as well as working with local governments.

The EPA is currently working on a framework to help states figure out how to take total pollution into account in permitting. Alan Walts is the director of EPA Region 5's tribal and multimedia programs office.

"In a lot of ways, it sort of reflects the next generation of environmental protection, where we move from single media, single source solutions to more comprehensive ones. Took EPA 50 years to get to where we are now. It's going to take us a minute to get to that next level of how we do our work," he said.

Mooney said that it's important for communities to get involved and recognize that this important conversation is going on.

Contact reporter Rebecca Thiele at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Rebecca Thiele covers statewide environment and energy issues.