A California-based company wants to build an advanced recycling plant in Gary, saying it will bring green jobs to the area. Residents aren’t convinced.
In a city already plagued by dirty air and other pollutants, the news in 2018 that an advanced plastics recycling plant might be built in Gary raised alarm bells for activists Carolyn McCrady and Dorreen Cary.
They met with then-mayor Karen Freeman Wilson to voice their skepticism.
“We talked about the issue of plastics, the transportation of trucks, the fact that the lake shore should be protected at this point and, of course, the fact that we're an environmental justice community, and we should be reducing pollution rather than adding to it,” said Cary, former director of environmental affairs department for the city of Gary.
After the meeting, they assumed the project was off the table, but when it resurfaced three years later, they recruited reinforcements and formed Gary Advocates for Responsible Development, in part to challenge the construction of the plant, currently scheduled to begin in 2024.
“Gary is already past the saturation point, in terms of how much pollution and air pollution it can tolerate. Here was another new source that the city wanted to add to the existing burden in the city already,” said GARD member Lin Kaatz Chary.
“It looked dangerous, it looked volatile, they had no record,” said McCrady. “It was untested technology.”
A SOLUTION TO PLASTICS POLLUTION?
Imagine being able to help solve the global crisis of plastics pollution by removing plastic bottles from the waste stream and using a non-polluting process to turn them into an alternative jet fuel.
That’s the promise of California-based Fulcrum Biofuel, which in December 2018 announced its selection of a 75-acre site in Gary to build its Centerpoint biorefinery. The biorefinery would use municipal waste to produce a synthetic gas that would be further refined and transformed into aviation fuel, a process referred to as advanced recycling.
Advanced recycling uses heat or chemicals to convert trash into a solid, liquid or gas that can be sold for use as industrial raw materials or fuel.
Household garbage is taken to a processing facility, where inorganic materials like metals are separated from organic waste. The inorganic materials are recycled or disposed of in a landfill. The organic materials are sorted by type and size, then dried and processed into “feedstock” for gasification.
In the case of the Gary operation, Fulcrum hasn’t yet announced the location for its processing facility but is looking at properties in Indiana and Chicago. It’s estimated the facility would divert more than 700,000 tons of waste from landfills in the region annually and would slow the need to expand landfills or build new ones.
The feedstock from the processing facility would be loaded onto trucks — an estimated 100 to 120 loads a day — and taken to the Centerpoint plant in Gary.
“The Gary property is a brownfield site that has sat vacant for over 20 years and is surrounded by other manufacturing facilities and industrial uses,” said Rick Barraza, vice president of Fulcrum Bioenergy. “Fulcrum is committed to repurpose the site for the betterment of the region. Fulcrum hopes to be the catalyst attracting like-minded, innovative industries to the region.”
The company estimates that 31 million gallons per year of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) will be produced at Centerpoint. SAF is an alternative to traditional fossil fuel jet fuel and reduces greenhouse gas emissions from flying.
“Because of reduced methane emissions from landfills and renewable material in landfill waste, the SAF produced by Centerpoint is anticipated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent compared to traditional fossil jet fuel,” said Barraza.
In April, the Indiana General Assembly overwhelming passed SB 472, which defines the regulatory framework for advanced recycling for the state. Indiana is the 24th state to pass such legislation.
“This bill is a win-win for the state of Indiana,” author Sen. Mark Messmer (R-Jasper) told the American Chemistry Council. “It will bring green collar jobs to our local economy, boost tax revenue from business investments, and reduce plastics in landfills and our environment.”
The legislation will make it easier for companies to build advanced recycling operations in the state. But although the gasification process has been tried in Europe and Australia, it has yet to prove itself.
The international organization Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives said “gasification has a more than three-decade long track record with which to test vendor claims about the technology’s suitability for waste treatment. Unfortunately, gasification plants have made very little operational data available. Existing data does show that dozens of projects have failed, for a variety of technical and financial reasons... . These failures highlight a widespread inability to meet projected energy generation, revenue generation, and emissions targets, or to simply maintain consistent operation.”
FIGHTING FOR JUSTICE — AND JOBS
After retiring from teaching English and journalism in the Gary public school system in 2009, McCrady now had additional time to spend on activism. When she learned about Fulcrum, she joined other concerned citizens, including Cary and Kaatz-Chary, a former steel worker turned policy analyst, to found GARD.
“Environmental organizations have come and gone in the city of Gary. When these folks came to town, there wasn't one, and we had to put it together,” McCrady said. “I just knew it was a bad idea and I wanted to contribute in any way I could.”
GARD partnered with the NAACP to increase its reach and to raise awareness about Centerpoint, viewing the proposed plant as an environmental justice issue. The area surrounding the plant is 95% Black. It also has asked to meet with city leadership to discuss its concerns.
“There was so little due diligence done in examining what the implications of this were for the city,” Kaatz-Chary said.
GARD isn’t anti-labor. In fact, it wants labor jobs for Gary residents, but not at the cost of environmental and human health.
“I was a steelworker for many years. I was somebody who was trying always to get labor and the environment together,” Kaatz-Chary said. “And I will say that for many years it was a very hard struggle to get labor involved in the environment. There was a real antipathy towards environmentalists by labor and it was very hard to persuade them that it wasn't a question of jobs versus the environment, but jobs and the environment.”
She also taught in the Indiana University system for 11 years and created a course on labor and the environment and how both were important and intimately connected.
“Labor and the environment are fundamental,” she said.
When members of GARD have tried to engage in conversations about the plant, job creation has always been brought up as a reason to build the facility.
“We have to fight this idea that if Fulcrum comes, we’re opposing jobs, because that’s not true,” Kaatz-Chary said. “That’s a straw man they throw up, to try to turn people away and to make it an opposition. You can't work if you can't breathe.”
CLEAN OR DIRTY?
Fulcrum estimates that 30% of the waste used in its gasification process will be plastic. GARD members fear burning the plastic will release toxic chemicals that can cause cancer, as well as brain development and thyroid problems.
Barraza said Fulcrum doesn’t target plastic for its feedstock or depend on it for the gasification process.
“Fulcrum’s feedstock is prepared solely from landfill waste,” he said. “This waste includes plastic only to the extent that it is discarded in household garbage (e.g., plastic bags, single-use plastic containers and other plastic items that are not recycled). It is worth noting, however, that the plastic which may be present in our feedstock can be safely destroyed in gasification. Fulcrum uses a gasification process to convert feedstock into a synthesis gas in an enclosed, low-oxygen environment. The syngas is then converted into SAF.”
Fulcrum says it used standard industry calculations and information provided by the vendors for certain equipment like the boiler and the feedstock dryer.
“The majority of the emissions from the plant are anticipated to be from the use of natural gas (i.e., in the boiler). Emissions from the use of natural gas are well understood,” Barraza said.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Affairs said it evaluated and confirmed the numbers submitted by Fulcrum.
“IDEM, Office of Air Quality, reviewed all information provided by Fulcrum Centerpoint in its air permit application (e.g., emission factors and calculation methods) and determined the information adequately represented emission potential within state and federal air regulations,” said IDEM public information officer Barry Sneed.
At the request of GARD members and other residents, IDEM conducted a public hearing about the Fulcrum draft permit in April 2022. Sneed said IDEM reviewed public comments and statements and provided responses in the Addendum to the Technical Support Document for the permit.
IDEM issued the air permit In August 2022, allowing Fulcrum to begin construction, but GARD filed a petition with the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication through the Environmental Law and Policy Center, charging that the air permit violates Indiana law due to unsupported emission calculations and inadequate information about the company’s feedstock. It also charged that IDEM failed to adequately consider and protect human health.
Cary, now the president of GARD, said there aren’t any real, provable or correctly estimated calculations because of the nature of the feedstock.
“Garbage feedstock as a source, it can change from day to day. And therefore, you can't really say what the source is. So, if you can't say what the source is, how can you say what the emissions are going to be? That is one of our arguments,” she said.
McCrady added, “We also believe that to add a polluting source to an already overburdened community, without going through community engagement, assessment of cumulative impact and addressing what the impact of the addition of those emissions is, is an improper way to approve a permit for our area. And then more needs to be done when you approve a permit in an area that already is overburdened, that that needs to be changed. They need to do better.”
Barraza said issuance of an air permit is not a “free ride” to operate. It establishes a monitoring and reporting protocol Centerpoint will be required to follow.
“If Fulcrum Centerpoint is not able to meet the permitted limits, it will be required to take corrective action and then demonstrate it has met the permit requirements,” he said.
The biorefinery is designed with several controls that will minimize emissions, he said.
“In fact, the projected emissions from the biorefinery will be below ‘major source’ thresholds, which in Lake County, Indiana are far more stringent than typical EPA standards,” he said.
WORKING THROUGH THE PROCESS
In December, GARD made an amendment to its original petition, adding engineering support from the Environmental Integrity Project and the Center for Applied Environmental Science, two Washington, D.C.-based organizations that provide technical expertise to environmental advocates. The amended petition is making its way through the adjudication process, with the final pre-hearing expected in October.
“Any member of the public has a right to petition to the Office of Environmental Adjudication (OEA) for administrative review. This is part of the permitting process, and we respect that,” Barraza said. “We stand by the merits of our application that was approved by IDEM and will work with the OEA as the administrative review process continues.”
He added that after receiving feedback from residents, Fulcrum is exploring opportunities to better help the parks and green spaces of Gary and is looking at renewable fuel options for the feedstock trucks.
Meanwhile, GARD is hard at work on other environmental justice issues facing Gary, including filing a Title VI complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency against IDEM for an alleged pattern of discriminatory permitting decisions based on race or other protected categories.
Kaatz-Chary would like to see economic development in Gary take a different, more creative direction. An abandoned middle school in a residential area that has been approved for conversion to a trucking operation, for instance, could have become an art center instead.
“Look for the opportunities and the kinds of things that we want to see that make this city a place that people want to come to,” she said.
Cary said she would like to see the area attract industries that reduce pollution, rather than add to it. She also envisions the industrial landscape along Lake Michigan becoming a protected area.
“It would be cleaned up, and there would be trails,” she said. “There would be buffer zones between even the existing industry and the lake, so that we can protect that amazing water resource that's going to be the foundation of all of our communities around the Great Lakes, or certainly around Lake Michigan.”