Gary, area officials say Summit, Inc. closure plan doesn’t go far enough

Area legislators and community members expressed their concerns with the modified closure plan for the Summit Inc. property in Gary during a Wednesday public hearing held by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Many area officials, including Gary Mayor Eddie Melton, State Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, and a representative from the office of U.S. Rep. Frank Mrvan, D-Highland, said the modified closure plan does not go far enough because it closes a small portion of the junkyard by 2030.

Around 93% of the residents who live within one mile of the site are people of color, officials said, while 84% of the residents within three-mile radius are people of color.

“We’re trying to change the narrative. Far too often, the narrative is that it’s okay to dump on Gary. It’s okay to emit toxins and fumes in a majority-minority city, low income city,” Melton said. “We don’t see this happening and taking place in more suburban communities around our region, and we want that same respect.”

Summit, Inc., 6901 W. Chicago Avenue, operates as a large-scale metal recycler, and it is located near the Gary/Chicago International Airport and bordered by Airport Road, Industrial Highway and U.S. 12, according to the modified closure plan.

The IDEM modified closure plan, which is in response to a 2022 court order, would shut down two areas within the junkyard, in which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency saw crushed automobiles leaking transmission fluid, engine oil, brake fluid, antifreeze and gasoline onto the ground. The EPA noted spent lead acid batteries on the ground and puddles with residual fluids, like automotive used oils and gas, according to the plan.

Since 2004, the City of Gary has used legal avenues to ensure that the site is properly cleaned and has issued fines for not maintaining a clean site, seven area legislators stated in a letter. In 2014, IDEM found that Summit, Inc. violated the solid waste disposal process, and in 2016 the EPA entered into a consent agreement with the company that included a civil penalty and required site clean up, according to the letter.

In that time, Summit, Inc. hasn’t complied with court rulings or paid fines to clean up the site, according to a letter.

Summit, Inc. president and site owner Peter Coulopoulos attended the hearing. He did not speak during the public hearing and declined to comment afterward.

Melton said he received a 15-page report from the Gary/Chicago International Airport documenting 288 explosions on the site since 2010, with 12 more reported in March and April of this year.

The EPA identified over 20 hazardous materials, including lead, mercury and methochloride, on the site above safe levels for human and environmental health in 2008, Melton said. It also has documented that the substances have spread outside the site, which increases health risks for residents, he said.

“Many of the substances listed are toxic and can cause cancer,” Melton said.

Tommy Sokolowski, an attorney for the Gary/Chicago International Airport, said that the modified closure plan will only clean up 0.64 acres of the 38-acre site.

“We’re getting doomed for another 20 years of no site cleanup,” Sokolowski said.

State Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton, who also works as an attorney for the City of Gary, said agencies like IDEM need to enforce the court order to clean up the site.

“It’s time that the City of Gary is taken seriously and these orders are taken seriously,” Pol said. “Without that, we’re essentially sending a clear message that no matter how hard you try this can continue, and that has to stop now.”

State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, said Summit, Inc. has been causing problems in Gary for the last 20 years. IDEM has the authority to shut Summit, Inc. down, he said.

“They have no business coming to this town and polluting it,” Randolph said.

State Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, said the operations on the site have resulted in fires and explosions, which in turn have led to chemical contamination of the soil and groundwater. The proposed plan is only a partial clean-up, Harris said, and does not go far enough.

Smith said 20 years is a long time to wait for a clean-up on the site and deal with a company that does not respect court rulings or the community it is located in.

“I think even a blind man can see that Summit has no respect for any of the agencies that it’s been involved in. No respect for the courts, no respect for the City of Gary, no respect for the lives of the people who reside in this area,” Smith said.

Mark Lopez, Chief of Staff to U.S. Rep. Mrvan, said the Congressman said more should be done to address the site.

“Considering the multiple investigations of this facility, the Congressman believes that stronger action is necessary to ensure this site is no longer a polluter in our shared community. The operator’s repeated abuse of air, land and water should no longer be tolerated,” Lopez said.

Gary Advocates for Responsible Development President Dorreen Carey said the modified closure plan is incomplete because it would only close down a portion of the site.

GARD — a nonprofit group with a mission to promote economic development in Gary that prioritizes environmental justice, community health and protection of neighborhoods and natural resources — called for Summit to be shut down.

“The mere fact that this closure plan is a requirement of a federal court order should tell you that Summit cannot be relied on to clean up its property,” Carey said. “It needs to be cleaned up now. Unfortunately, Summit cannot be trusted to do this work.”

Brian Robinson, a Gary resident and Summit employee, said while he understands the environmental concerns, the company shouldn’t be shut down because then many people will be left without a job.

“There has to be some type of agreement, not just we go one way or the other,” Robinson said.