GARY — An ex-East Chicago councilman behind the Maya Energy project in Gary is seeking to operate a biofuel processing plant in the city of Lake Station under a separate company, DSA Fuels LLC, The Times has learned.
Lake Station Mayor Chris Anderson said Wednesday he has some reservations about Jimmy Ventura's project due to the proposed location being in a flood plain near Burns Ditch. He said he expects to learn more Friday after a meeting with his city engineer.
"We're still in the beginning stages and gathering information," Anderson said.
Anderson said Ventura is seeking a use variance through the city's Zoning Board for a privately owned parcel near Interstate 80/94 and immediately south of Burns Ditch, east of Lake Station's old Compost Facility and west of farmland.
'Nothing we're rushing into'
“When you hear from Jimmy, there’s no hazards, no inconvenience, and everything sounds great, but he’s trying to sell it to us. We can't say right now if we're opposed, or for it. If it's not best for the city, it’s not going to happen," Anderson said.
"This is nothing we're rushing into. We're taking our time," he said.
Ventura initially declined comment earlier this week but said he'd talk about the project at a later date. When contacted again Wednesday, Ventura confirmed he is seeking to operate a clean-fuel processing site in Lake Station in partnership with a New York developer.
"This is separate from Maya Energy," he said. "We'll take (organic food) waste banned from landfills and turn it into compressed natural gas. It's a very, very good project. There's a big need for this, so there's a lot of incentives for it. It's a fantastic project."
The property currently is zoned light industrial. Operating a facility that turns organic waste into fuel requires special zoning approval because of the nature of operations, according to Stephen Stopko, a city-contracted engineer with MECA Engineering.
Last year, Ventura petitioned the city on this project, but on another site: the nearby old city-owned composting site, Stopko said. He was seeking $5 million through the TIF district on the estimated $60 million project, Stopko said.
Stopko and Anderson said the city recently sought and obtained more documentation from Ventura regarding the new location, including a statement of qualifications, site examples and proposed drawings.
Anderson cautioned that the city is only in the beginning stages of reviewing the project.
Rodney Johnson, of Hobart, operates 130 acres of farmland with his father under the company name Johnson Farms Produce to the east of the proposed fuel-processing site.
He first contacted The Times when he saw a public notice last month about the zoning variance request. He said he is mainly concerned about how the clean-fuel process could affect groundwater, his nearby farmland and the Burns Ditch that flows directly into Lake Michigan.
"Everyone in Lake and Porter is paying a stormwater runoff tax, so putting a refuse company right on the Burns Ditch doesn't make any sense," he said. "That is the most porous land in Northwest Indiana. Why would you build something like this here?"
Johnson said he attended the city's Board of Zoning Appeals meeting last month, where Ventura discussed the project and the board allowed Johnson to speak in opposition. The board did not make any decision, but scheduled a public hearing on the zoning variance request.
The meeting is set for 7 p.m. May 23 at city hall.
Ventura considered Chicago Heights, too
In 2011, Ventura also attempted to build a substantially similar facility to the Maya Energy recycling/waste facility in 2011 in Chicago Heights, Illinois, EPA documents and federal court records show.
The Illinois project ultimately fell through, and in June 2016, Ventura filed a lawsuit against the land owner, alleging Chicago Heights Land Management Inc. and Earth Management breached a purchasing contract and never closed on the property.
The two companies, during this time, transferred ownership and control of IRRF’s operating certification to Earth Management.
The lawsuit was filed in the Northern District of Indiana around the same time Ventura sought approval from the Gary City Council to operate the Maya Energy facility.
The federal case was dismissed in March 2017 for Ventura’s failure to state a claim, and the defendants argued they never signed the purchasing contract for the property.