A determined group of Gary residents are continuing their fight to safeguard the city from more pollution.

Gary Advocates for Responsible Development (GARD) asked for adjudication in its legal battle against Fulcrum BioEnergy this week, challenging the air permit for a proposed waste-to-jet-fuel plant in Gary. Advocates like GARD hope to prevent additional industrial pollution in a city already designated a “sacrifice zone,” a term for low-income, minority communities burdened by environmentally hazardous industries like chemical plants and expressways. 

“We’re all well aware that Gary has a long legacy of pollution,” said Jennie Rudderham, a GARD member and Gary resident. “So what we’re demanding is that we scrutinize new industries like Fulcrum that want to locate in the city of Gary, to the highest standard to make sure they’re not adding to this legacy of pollution.”

Fulcrum Bioenergy, self-described as a clean-energy landfill waste refinery, plans to use their new facility in Gary to turn trash and municipal waste into jet fuels. However, critics argue that Fulcrum’s plant is far from environmentally friendly. 

GARD has actively opposed Fulcrum’s Gary plant since 2021. In the motion, Gary residents alleged that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) failed to substantiate, as mandated by law, Fulcrum’s assertions that the Gary plant would be a minor source of air pollution and pose no threat to public health.

When contacted on the matter, IDEM declined to comment to Capital B. Fulcrum’s building project has since been on hold while in litigation about its potential emissions impacts.

How we got here

In 2021, Fulcrum Centerpoint applied for a permit with IDEM to build their biorefinery at Buffington Harbor, a lakefront property seated on Gary’s already-polluted western Lake Michigan shoreline. 

Last year, IDEM granted Fulcrum’s air permit. Yet, critics raised concerns that the permit lacked critical information about the facility’s potential health and environmental risks of its emissions. This issue is particularly pressing in Gary, a city already facing environmental vulnerability from a century of toxin dumping.

Gary ‘s legacy of air pollution from housing the nation’s largest smoke-secreting steel mill, flagrant zoning and land use laws, and decades of economic disinvestment only heighten the stakes of Fulcrum’s arrival.

Gary still leads the nation in the amount of toxic industrial emissions per square mile and is now more vulnerable to climate change than 99% of the country, as Capital B reported.

A 2019 EPA report estimated that residents in the northern part of Lake County are breathing air that is “so polluted” that it exposes residents to lung cancer – the eighth-highest risk in the nation. Since then, the risk has increased, with lung cancer now being the third most common cancer nationally. 

Additional critical questions remain surrounding what kind of risks are posed by its emissions, which depend on what kind of “feedstock,” or materials that will supply Fulcrum’s machines, will be used. Fulcrum’s process includes transporting municipal waste from the Chicago area, turning it into feedstock, and taking it to the Gary plant to be refined into a “low carbon” renewable jet fuel. 

It is unclear what the feedstock is composed of. In a deposition, Jenny Acker, IDEM’s chief of air permits testified, “I don’t know what’s in their feedstock exactly.” 

But Fulcrum says their process converts landfill waste into sustainable aviation fuel that reduces lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent compared to traditional jet fuel.

Fulcrum uses a process called “gasification” which uses heat, pressure, and steam to convert materials directly into a gas. Plastics, which contain lead, flame retardants, and other toxic chemicals make up a large amount of trash and municipal wastes. So when plastics are heated to high temperatures through heat-based processes like gasification, toxic compounds are released into the air, as well as creating highly toxic solid waste. 

This, combined with its incomplete emissions estimates, GARD says, make it impossible to report specific and accurate emissions to IDEM before building and operating the facility. GARD, along with the Environmental Law and Policy Center, has filed a petition to the Indiana Office of Environmental Adjudication to revoke Fulcrum’s air permit until the company discloses clear emissions projections before the plant is built.

“It’s a standard formula, it’s just algebra,” said Mike Zoeller, senior attorney with the Environmental Law and Policy Center. “But if you don’t have that constant, if you don’t understand why or how you’ve calculated that constant … then there’s no way to verify that the result of that algebra is going to be accurate.” 

“So every equation that comes after that is based on this first data point that is uncertain,” Rudderham said. “And we all know, there can be a lot of scary things that go into our trash.”

A Fulcrum BioEnergy spokesperson told Capital B Gary that their estimated emissions were determined by Fulcrum’s engineering team and based on “general industry practice and experience.” 

In addition to Gary, Fulcrum also hoped to build facilities on the Gulf Coast and the United Kingdom. But so far, things have yet to go as planned. Fulcrum defaulted on its first Sierra plant based in Nevada in October after missing its first payments in August, according to public documents. Fulcrum also initially expected to begin construction in Gary this year, but now says construction could begin next year, according to their website.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to the development and operations of the Centerpoint project,” the Fulcrum spokesperson told Capital B Gary.

But Dorreen Carey, president of GARD, says when things like this happen, the message to stakeholders is clear: “Don’t invest.”