“We talk about environmentalism—air, water, earth, soil—however, environmental justice takes into consideration ‘the people.’ And this fight is about people who have died and are suffering from chronic illnesses because of exposure to toxins.”– Lori Latham, GARD member and Gary NAACP environmental and climate justice committee chair
At GARD, a diverse group of community residents and regional supporters aim to clear the air and plot a better course for the next generation in Gary, Indiana. “[My son] needs a future,” says GARD-member Jennie Rudderham. “He needs a planet. The city needs a future.”
Few engaged in Gary’s development would disagree, but major disagreements continue to arise over the means and measures of future prosperity and community well-being. For their part, GARD members share a vision for “progressive development” in the words of member Carolyn McCrady, “…that takes into account the health and welfare of the people of Gary and that does not contribute to the environmental degradation of the city of Gary.”
GARD leaders first advocated publicly for this vision in response to a so-called “waste-to-fuel” plant promoted by city, state and business officials. In 2021, the Gary Common Council approved an agreement with Fulcrum BioEnergy, Inc. to build a fuel conversion plant on the shores of Lake Michigan. In a process named “gasification,” Fulcrum’s proprietary Centerpoint project extracts synthetic crude from common trash, comprised up to 30% by plastics.
Gary’s development representatives expressed their own concern for the project’s environmental impact, which would see 700,000 tons of trash diverted from nearby Chicago, but they justified it alongside company spokespeople as a net positive for Gary’s green infrastructure and for the broader aviation industry. At the same time, Fulcrum obtained state and federal subsidies to finance their project as a green initiative, and they worked with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to obtain permits required to manage pollutants.
Despite government support and public relations campaigns, GARD founders remained skeptical. “We should understand that the permit allows them to legally emit tons of pollutants every year,” McCrady noted on Lakeshore Public Radio. “They are proclaiming that they are extremely environmental and conscious of the environment,” McCrady went on, “but when you look underneath all these benefits that they promise to the people of Gary, they never talk about the amount of pollutants that they will be emitting on top of what we already have here. And they never talk about the risks that are involved in those pollutants.”
In fact, Centerpoint’s permitting in Indiana highlights how corporations and government collude to redefine polluting practices in legal terms. Gasification provides one clear example: although Centerpoint’s process requires super-heating of trash—including plastics—the method is not categorized as “burning” or “incineration” and so can avoid codified pollution controls. Similarly, Indiana law recently redefined Centerpoint’s fuel source—dried trash called “feedstock”—as a commodity rather than a solid waste so that the facility is not required to obtain a solid waste permit.
Fortunately, GARD members see through the smokescreen. “Gary needs investments in businesses that will contribute to sustainable economic development that will create clean jobs and green jobs, not polluters that hide behind company PR ‘greenwashing’ campaigns,” says GARD member and founder of Brown Faces Green Spaces Kimmie Gordon.
In a green paper on Gary’s “bad deal” with Fulcrum, GARD shows that Centerpoint technologies are unproven, have a record of failure, will bring more waste to Gary and will expand, not reduce, the aviation industry’s carbon footprint. According to Jane Williams, an advisor to GARD from California Communities Against Toxics, Counterpoint’s process “…is one of the most energy-intensive…I have reviewed in my career.”
Ultimately, GARD recognizes that Gary’s bad deal is only one instance of historical development trends that discriminate against people of color and the poor. “I feel like Gary is being used based on its location, and also based on its demographics just to be a solution for where to put Chicago’s trash,” says Latham.
Nearly 80% of Gary’s population is black, and a third of its residents live below the poverty line. Indeed, Gary and surrounding communities—including East Chicago residents who live half-a-mile from the proposed development—have long endured environmental injustices. Within Gary, the Fulcrum site is proximate to half-a-dozen Superfund sites and several brownfields. Dozens more litter northwest Indiana and southeast Illinois. Alongside economic depression and industrial blight, Gary residents face increased cancer risks from air pollutants, soot exposure and wastewater.
In the fall of 2022, GARD put their vision for the future to action by filing formal appeal against Centerpoint’s permits. “I have a hard time seeing how the city can move forward and access the asset that our lakefront is by, you know, locating solid waste dumps there,” Latham says. Alongside permit denial, GARD asks state and municipal officials to pursue further research on failed “trash-to-gas” tech; to better understand community impacts of revised permitting standards; and to better engage Gary residents in decision making processes for economic development.
While GARD waits on court appeals and plans its response, A2 is proud to provide coalition support alongside the Center for Applied Environmental Science; the Environmental Law and Policy Center; the Conservation Law Center; the Environmental Protection Network; the Center for Health, Environment and Justice; California Communities Against Toxics; and Just Transition NWI among others.
For more information:
Lakeshore Public Radio interview
Fulcrum Centerpoint Public Information presentation
The Times (northwest Indiana) article
Air Pollution, Superfund Sites, Water Contamination
Community Science, Fighting Industrial Contamination, Halting Bad Development
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