By Aja Yasir
Founded in 1906 by U.S. Steel Corporation, Gary, Indiana, was known as one of the premier industrial cities at the turn of the century. Coined the “Magic City,” it offered promises of economic prosperity for immigrants and migrants who wanted a taste of the American Dream. That dream soon became a nightmare for the region as industries polluted the air, water, and soil.
Over 100 years after the onslaught of U.S. Steel Corporation, companies continue to pollute Gary with seemingly no recourse. The company Fulcrum Centerpoint is one of the newest companies on the list, offering Gary economic opportunities in exchange for more environmental horrors.
I caught up with Kimmie Gordon to discuss what Fulcrum Centerpoint entering into Gary would mean for the environment and Gary’s citizens. Gordon is the founder/director of Brown Faces Green Spaces, an organization that promotes diversity in outdoor activities. She is also the lead organizer of the environmental justice group Gary Advocates for Responsible Development (GARD).
Aja: How did this situation between Fulcrum Centerpoint and Gary begin?
Kimmie: Fulcrum Centerpoint came to Gary back in, I believe it was 2018, through the Redevelopment Department. They were looking for land to be able to place a fuel refinery to convert municipal solid waste into jet fuel. Gary agreed. Fulcrum Centerpoint has a pilot facility in Reno, Nevada, eight years in the making and is still not up and operating, nor has it ever produced one gallon of jet fuel. They’ve not looked at any other places in the U.S. but Gary. They’re saying that they’re a worldwide biofuels company banking on the fact that they’re going to come here and make jet fuel which, they’ve never done before in the facility that’s three times larger than their facility in Reno, which is out in the middle of a desert. Here it would be on 75 acres of land that sits on the shores of Lake Michigan. So far, they’ve applied for an air permit with the Indiana department of environmental management. There was a public hearing last Wednesday that Gary Advocates for Responsible Development (GARD) attended. GARD is an environmental justice group that formed in Gary in response to this Fulcrum project. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management had a public hearing before issuing an air permit. Several people attended and voiced their opinions about not wanting it here. The state of Indiana and Governor Holcomb offered this company $500 million in backed bonds to help them get investors to come here to Gary and create their plant. Now, Fulcrum Centerpoint would not have otherwise had any financial viability outside of that. If it weren’t for the $500 million in backed bonds given to them by the state of Indiana to build their facility at Buffington Harbor in Gary, then they would not be here.
Aja: Why should the world care about what is going on in Gary as far as it relates to environmental trauma?
Kimmie: Gary has been disproportionately affected by a hundred plus years of environmental abuse and neglect and lack of regulation and enforcement. Its disproportionate impact is on people like us, people in urban communities, poor communities, poor cities, and people of color. We’re underrepresented and less likely to be protected from these disproportionate impacts and environmental hazards from industrial and waste facilities because of enforcement and regulation of the environmental laws. A good example of that would be, let’s say, that there were two identical plants coming to Northwest Indiana. One of them is in Gary. One of them is in Dyer. So, the regulations and policies with regard to their pollutive emissions are way lower in Gary than the regulations of a plant in Dyer. Why is this? We’re not part of the decision-making, meaningful involvement, which is a portion of the definition of environmental justice.
According to the EPA, meaningful involvement means that you’re going to make the people aware of what’s happening in your city. You’re going to have to present the pros and the cons. You’re going to have to allow these people to be able to take part in the decision-making process, sharing of information, making them aware. But in Gary, decisions are made through the Gary Common Council and the Gary Planning Commission without even an ounce of notice to the public. By the time the public hears about it, the decision is already made, and it’s extremely hard to undo. So, we’re getting this news after the fact, which means there is no meaningful involvement for the people of Gary or for other communities like ours that are sacrifice zones. A sacrifice zone is an area already heavily polluted by dumping and already permanently impaired by mass environmental exploitation and economic disinvestment. We are that. That is our narrative. Come and dump your garbage and chemicals in Gary, Indiana. That has been our narrative for over 100 years.
Aja: Why do you think the Gary City Council is in constant support of these corporations that are destroying the health of Gary’s citizens?
Kimmie: The bottom line is money. We are poor. We’re in need of economic development. Under the guise of economic development, Gary makes these deals with these industrial and trucking companies without giving any thought whatsoever to the environmental impacts that come with these types of developments and decisions. For instance, I’ve noticed that when people are appointed by the mayor for the Planning Commission, the people in the Planning Commission are like, yes men or yes women. The people officials are looking for people who will go along with whatever is needing to be passed based on what the mayor or city officials want them to decide. When there are people likely to do their homework and research before making any decisions, they’re the kind of people that the city doesn’t want on those commissions, councils, or boards. In this city, you are appointed by the mayor, you are friends with the mayor, and you’re going to do what the mayor asks you to do. So, we’re stuck in this narrative without a way out unless we start speaking up and saying something and questioning the decisions that are happening and making people aware of when these meetings happen so that they can be a part of those decisions. When these meetings happen, they’re on the hush. Nobody knows about these meetings until the decision is made and it hits the newspaper. Fulcrum came on the table overnight and was approved on the next day because the mayor said, there’s $350 million in tax bond, we need to do this before a certain date, and we need it to happen.
Aja: Are there any city councilmen who need to be removed from office because of their support of these corporations?
Kimmie: That’s a tough question only because I don’t want to call anyone out specifically, even though I know I can. I feel that, in general, the council people need to do better at informing the constituents of projects that affect the wellbeing and quality of life for the people in their districts so they can have this meaningful involvement, again, as defined by the EPA. I blame that on every council person that’s sitting on the Gary common council if they don’t do that. I can say that William Godwin informed the council before pushing through that decision on Fulcrum. It gave us about, I want to say, a week, but I’m not certain. It gave the community about a week to say, hey, we don’t want this, but that’s all we had. We didn’t have time to go and do research. Even if people did say, hey, we don’t want this, it was voted, not unanimous. I think there were three council persons that said, no, we don’t want this, and the rest, of course, said, yes, we do.
Aja: Can you tell us who the council people are? Who said they did not want it?
Kimmie: William Godwin did at first, but now he’s since changed his mind, Fulcrum invited him down to their facility in Reno, and he came back all gung-ho for it. At first, it was William Godwin, Tai Adkins, and Linda Barnes Caldwell. William Godwin has since changed his mind.
Aja: Kimmie, what do you want the people to know? What are the detrimental impacts Fulcrum will have on the people who live in Gary and the surrounding areas?
Kimmie: Well, the pollution. They’re saying that it’s a green process. I feel that it’s greenwashing. Our whole group does. They use terms like sustainable, we’re a green company, we’re going to use gasification and not incineration, but the truth is, they’re going to produce a fuel that still has to be mixed 50-50 with petroleum in order for it to be effective. They’re going to make this fuel from the use of natural gas and the combustion of waste materials and plastics at high temperatures, a process that creates emissions and qualifies as incineration based on the level of temperature that they’re heating this product with.
Also, they’re claiming to get rid of or use the waste from the landfill, therefore, depreciating the landfill waste, but the truth is they pick what they want out of it and then, they send it back to the landfill. In doing that, they’re trucking in and out all day, every day, 120 trucks in carrying this garbage and 120 trucks out carrying that garbage. They say it’s about 120. But I guarantee you, it’s going to be an offsite trash sorting facility that’s supposed to create the product, and then the junk that’s left out of it gets sent back to the landfill. So, you see, it’s creating more trucking pollution. It’s using a heck of a lot of natural gas and electricity for the process. It’s contributing to air quality issues, road sediment from the trucking going back and forth, and tearing up our streets and our neighborhoods, wherever this offsite facility is supposed to be. What happens if our fire departments or emergency management departments don’t know how to remediate or diffuse a chemical fire? What kind of chemicals are there? We don’t know any of this. There’s no environmental data. They’re saying all of it is proprietary that they can’t, for legal purposes, share any of their data on how the process works and whether it’s worked or not.
Aja: Kimmie, let’s address this because a lot of people may not know about the good aspects of Gary, Indiana. It is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the nation. They have an artesian spring there. How could this pollution, and how could these pollution-driven companies, destroy the city’s potential for an economy-based ecotourism sector? Because some people actually move to Gary because of the biodiversity.
Kimmie: There was recently some kind of government program that encourages the development of the lakefront to attract tourism. With that being in place, I’m not understanding why we would continue to degrade (our) natural resources with more industrial pollution. Instead of building the lakefront for ecotourism and creating a space where that’s an asset to us, we’re welcoming yet another company to come in and destroy it. We want to promote economic development in the city of Gary that prioritizes environmental sustainability that protects the environment and assures the environmental integrity of the city and its resources. We want to create sustainable and living wage jobs for the citizens and job training. We want to end the unequal burden of industrial pollution. By bringing in more industry (we’re) leaving cities like Gary, East Chicago, and even Hammond with the legacy of contaminated soil, air, and water. Lake Michigan is the drinking water source for 6.6 million people, 10 million people lake wide. The unequal burden is on black and brown and low-income communities, leaving them with cancers and respiratory diseases and neurological disorders, and developmental delays in infants and children. Gary, Indiana, has the worst air quality index in the nation.
Aja: Kimmie, as the founder of Brown Faces Green Spaces as well as GARD, what is our call to action? What must we do to change the course of what’s going on in Gary?
Kimmie: We all must understand what environmental justice is and delve into the main points of why it exists, and who it exists for. It exists for people who live in marginalized communities, where we are targets for industrial establishments to come in and dirty up our air and everything around us. We don’t matter. If we matter to ourselves, we have to start letting them know. We have to start telling this city to promote economic development and protect our natural resources and the integrity of the resources. Put an end to the unequal burden of industrial pollution on us that has left us sick and dying early and coughing, leaving our children with asthma, unable to play in a park, and not being able to walk on the soil. Pollution is everywhere. We have to understand the burden on our families, our children, and our seniors who are getting early dementia; that pollution causes respiratory diseases and neurological disorders, and cancers. We don’t know we deserve to have the basic human rights of clean air, water, and soil, and we need to get on board and fight back against this.
Stop laying down for these companies and saying nothing when they’re ready to put a truck stop in the middle of our neighborhood. We need to start standing up and saying, hell no, and get educated, get organized. Anybody who has any questions wants to know how can they help, what can they do, follow us. Follow brown faces green spaces on Facebook. Reach out to me. You can email [email protected] I will help you in any way I can. The army will come.
We just need to understand that this affects us the most. Look around you. When you pass through East Chicago on our main thoroughfare, look at our skyline. It’s smoggy. It’s filled with industry and smoke stacks emitting pollution. Why here? Because we let them. So, it’s time for us to stand up and say, hell no, no more.
Aja Yasir is a wife, mother, holistic gardener and folk herbalist living in Gary, Indiana. She uses regenerative methods such as habitat restoration, intense biodiversity, and Korean Natural Farming to grow over 200 varieties of fruit, vegetables, medicinal herbs, and mushrooms at her urban home. In addition, Aja is the host of Abundant Living and Gardening Podcast, the Executive Director of Gary NORML, founder of Blaze Summit: Conversations on Cannabis, and Cannabis Sommelier.