Clare Lane: Turning household waste into jet fuel is part of the green revolution, and it’s got many in the airline industry excited. Chicago-based United Airlines is investing millions in companies to grow the sustainable aviation fuel market, now in its infancy. One of those companies wants to build a biofuel plant near Lake Michigan in Gary, Indiana. But as WBEZ’s Michael Puente reports, there’s pushback from residents concerned about more industry and pollution in the
Michael Puente: Lake Michigan has been both boom and bust for Gary since its early days. It’s here –– just 30 minutes from Chicago –– where industrialists built the nation’s largest steel mills on pristine duneland in the early 1900s. Thousands arrived to toil in the hot and dangerous blast furnaces of U.S. Steel and others nearby. For decades, Gary prospered. But many of those jobs have long disappeared, along with residents with urban decay left in its wake. Fulcrum Bioenergy, a California-based company, wants to help change all that by building a biofuel refinery near the lakeshore.
Flyn Van Ewijh: The project itself here in Gary is about a $600 million investment, 130 full-time jobs when operating, an average wage of $30 an hour plus benefits.
Michael Puente: That’s Flyn Van Ewijh, Fulcrum’s project director. The company declined to be interviewed for this story, but Van Ewijh spoke before the Gary Common Council in late 2021 on the benefits of the project, including a thousand construction jobs and $10 million to help Gary tear down blighted buildings. Van Ewijh said the feedstock for the refinery would be common waste that’s processed elsewhere and transported to Gary to be utilized in Fulcrum’s gasification process.
Flyn Van Ewijh: Textile, paper, cardboard, a bit of soft plastic, that sort of stuff that’s in household waste. By the time we’re finished manufacturing it into a feedstock, it looks like fluff or confetti. It’s shredded and dry to less than 10 percent moisture. And that’s what we’re bringing by enclosed trucks to the facility that we are proposing here in Gary.
Michael Puente: Fulcrum says it wants to build in Gary because of the availability of a big industrial site, and it’s near large sources of household waste. The company says it doesn’t incinerate the waste, and the refinery’s effect on air quality in the city would be minimal. Along with United Airlines, other air carriers, oil giant BP and the U.S. Department of Defense have invested in Fulcrum. The company recently began producing biofuel at its other refinery located near Reno, Nevada in a desert surrounded by mountains and not much else. The Gary refinery, called Fulcrum Centerpoint, would be three times the size of the Nevada plant situated on 75 acres less than a mile from residential homes and near the city’s airport. There Fulcrum says it would produce 31 million gallons of low-carbon fuel every year, while at the same time diverting 700-thousand tons of garbage from landfills. The company has secured a development agreement with the City of Gary, with the state kicking in millions in financial incentives, along with approval of an air permit despite concerns of toxic emissions.
Kimmie Gordon: We don’t have a lot of answers. We’ve got the cart before the horse when it comes to Fulcrum and that decision.
Michael Puente: Kimmie Gordon is a member of GARD, short for Gary Advocates for Responsible Development. The group is trying to pressure city and state officials – including the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, to slow the process down on what they say is a not-yet-proven technology. Indiana is already in the top three in the nation with the most toxic air releases, according to the U.S. EPA.
Kimmie Gordon: Adding on top of more and more and making these decisions and IDEM coming in so quickly and saying yes, you can have an air permit when they have absolutely no clue what this company is going to come in and emit and how to regulate what it is going to emit.
Michael Puente: GARD member Doreen Carey says without financial assistance from the state and city – Fulcrum wouldn’t be coming to Gary.
Doreen Carey: The benefits that are coming to us are not as great as the benefits that are going to them.
Michael Puente: Jermone Prince, the mayor of Gary, says he understands the concerns and believes the proposal is a responsible development for the city to bring jobs and increase its tax base. And he says, what’s going to be produced at the refinery, isn’t harmful to the environment.
Jermone Prince: There is certainly healthy skepticism out there as there should be. I’m not a scientist or an engineer. I can only move forward based on the information that we receive.
Michael Puente: Some of that skepticism is also coming from the president of Gary’s Common Council. William Godwin voted against the city’s agreement with Fulcrum. He got to see from the outside the company’s plant near Reno.
William Godwin: It’s an impressive operation and they’ve been working on it for some years but it’s in a very different environment. It’s in a desert. Very different space than being so close to an urban area that already has a whole lot of industrial uses.
Michael Puente: Godwin says allowing new industry to come into Gary may not be the right thing to turn the city’s fortunes around.
William Godwin: When people look at our pollution numbers and the asthma and other respiratory conditions that we have high numbers in, that concerns a lot of folks about whether they want to make Gary and Northwest Indiana home. So we really have to look at how much of this use can we bear?
Michael Puente: For GARD member Kimmie Gordon, that question has already been answered.
Kimmie Gordon: No, you’re not going to keep coming here and doing this to us.
Michael Puente: GARD is receiving help in its efforts to get Fulcrum’s air permit repealed from the Chicago-based Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Conservation Law Center in Bloomington, Indiana. A hearing on the repeal petition is set for this fall. Michael Puente, WBEZ news.
WBEZ transcripts are generated by an automatic speech recognition service. We do our best to edit for misspellings and typos, but mistakes do come through.