A Gary-based community development group filed a federal complaint against Indiana’s state environmental agency claiming it violated federal law by approving a permit for a waste processing plant in a largely minority community already experiencing high air pollution levels.
The Gary Advocates for Responsible Development filed a complaint May 15 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance, claiming the Indiana Department of Environmental Management violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by approving an air permit and construction permit for Maya Energy LLC that allows the company to operate a solid waste processing plant in Gary without considering environmental justice impacts.
The permit will allow the company to process more than 2,000 tons of garbage and construction debris every day. GARD said air pollution from the facility, along with increased emissions from diesel trucks carrying waste to the facility, would make the area’s bad air pollution problem worse.
“Gary and neighboring North Lake County communities have served as a ‘sacrifice zone’ and a dumping ground for far too long,” said GARD member Kimmie Gordon. “We are a largely minority community and one of the most polluted areas in the country. We are simply asking IDEM to do its job as required by law and analyze the cumulative impact that new facilities will have on pollution levels in our community before granting permits. If that analysis shows that a company’s facility will add significantly to existing pollution levels, it should be denied.”
In a letter to IDEM in 2022, the EPA determined that the proposed location of the facility “raises potential environmental justice concerns.” The agency said the neighborhoods around the facility have some of the highest levels in the state for particulate matter pollution, ozone, air toxics cancer risk and respiratory hazards as well as proximity to traffic, lead paint and Superfund sites.
The EPA recommended that IDEM conduct an environmental justice analysis to evaluate the potential effects that the facility would have on the community surrounding it, including truck traffic pollution.
“[B]ecause of the environmental conditions already facing this community, and the potential for additional disproportionate and adverse impacts based on race, national origin or other protected class, the siting of this facility may raise civil rights concerns. It is important, therefore, that IDEM assess its obligations under civil rights laws and policies,” wrote EPA Region 5 Air and Radiation Division director John Mooney in March 2022.
The City of Gary and GARD members appealed IDEM’s decision to issue the permit to the Office of Environmental Adjudication. OAE Environmental Law Judge Lori Kyle Endris upheld the decision to issue the permit, saying that IDEM does not have authority to regulate mobile source emissions or consider environmental justice impacts and the OEA cannot overturn permits on the basis that IDEM failed to consider those issues.
GARD argues that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance, requires that IDEM create and implement a permitting policy that incorporates environmental justice concerns into its permitting decisions, including the Maya Energy facility. IDEM receives federal funds every year to operate various programs.
GARD is now asking the EPA to order IDEM to revoke the permit it issued to Maya Energy and conduct an environmental justice analysis. The group also wants the EPA to order IDEM to implement a policy that considers environmental justice as part of the permitting process in the future.
The executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, which will represent GARD in the case, said the EPA cannot allow IDEM to continue ignoring its responsibilities under federal civil rights laws.
“The U.S. EPA should accept and pursue this important complaint, consistent with the Biden administration’s high-level commitment to seriously addressing environmental justice issues,” said ELPC executive director Howard Learner. “This complaint could have national implications if other state environmental agencies are failing to fully address EJ concerns with permit applications.”
IDEM said it does not have any comment on the nature of the complaint, as it is currently under review by the EPA.