The Podcast That Tried To Stop A Waste Management Center From Coming Next To A School

Jul 5, 2019
Originally published on July 10, 2019 2:15 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next story is about a charter school, a waste management facility and the idea of environmental justice about how poor neighborhoods are often more polluted than rich ones. More than a third of the people in Gary, Ind., live in poverty.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STEEL CITY ACADEMY PODCAST")

EVAN ADDISON: My grandma tells me the city of Gary used to be booming. There were jobs. There were people. There was money. But that all changed when the steel mill slowed down - people moved away, and crime increased.

CORNISH: That's 15-year-old Evan Addison. He, along with his twin brother Erin and their best friend Andrew Arevalo, helped start a podcast club at Steel City Academy in Gary. We'll hear more in a moment about how the kids went from hobby podcasters to journalists when they learned a waste management facility was going up next to their school. But first, some of the basics on that facility and the company that wants to build it, Maya Energy.

LAUREN CROSS: They're touting this as a $50 million investment, 120-plus high-paying jobs.

CORNISH: That's reporter Lauren Cross. She's been covering this story for The Times of Northwest Indiana.

CROSS: Essentially, what they'll be doing is taking in municipality waste, construction, demolition materials from contractors and waste-haulers across Lake County, Ind., as well as the Chicago area.

CORNISH: Now, Maya Energy says the facility will recycle about 90% of the waste and divert it from going to a landfill, resulting in, quote, "positive environmental impact." The company also says it won't burn any waste at the facility. Environmental activists argue that the plant, along with all the assorted truck traffic, will hurt the air quality in the neighborhood.

CROSS: The Glen Park neighborhood, it's, you know, just - much like Gary, it's economically depressed. There is quite a number of industrial sites in this area. But, you know, the school's there now, and, you know, they don't think this is really compatible with what they want the neighborhood to look like.

CORNISH: Cross says resistance to that plan fired up in March of last year.

CROSS: You had probably 150 charter school kids show up at the city council meeting, demanding that they reject this company's proposal. You know, they held up signs high above their head. It was just such a very spirited protest. And they really were just arguing that the noise, the pollution, this increased truck traffic, it would be detrimental to their health and education.

CORNISH: At first, it seemed like the protest had worked; the Gary City Council rescinded its approval for the facility, putting a halt to the project. Then Maya Energy sued.

CROSS: So the city council, who had essentially embraced these students' voices and embraced the community's opposition, they ultimately buckled under the pressure of this lawsuit. And now you see, this past March, Maya Energy was awarded its operating permit with the state.

CORNISH: Which brings us back to the student activists at Steel City Academy and the three members of the school's podcast club.

All right, so what I'm going to have you do first is introduce yourself, one by one.

EVAN ADDISON: I'm Evan Addison

ERIN ADDISON: I am Erin Addison.

ANDREW AREVALO: My name is Andrew Arevalo. What happened was, we're, like, just looking for a hobby, and Erin was like, hey, you know, we could do podcasting. It would be fun.

CORNISH: But with a big story unfolding right next to their school, Andrew, Erin and Evan did what any good reporter would - they started rolling, and here's a taste of that reporting.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STEEL CITY ACADEMY PODCAST")

EVAN ADDISON: We took buses to the city council, and Erin talked with some of the students who protested outside.

ERIN ADDISON: All right. We are here in the middle of Gary. So Malik Hubbard, what do you think about today's meeting?

MALIK HUBBARD: Like, I really want Steel City to stay here, and that dump got to go somewhere else. No dump this way.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: What was it like for you guys to be - you're laughing now. Do you remember that day?

ERIN ADDISON: Yeah.

EVAN ADDISON: Yes.

AREVALO: Yeah.

EVAN ADDISON: It was raining. Everybody had their signs out. We were right in front of the City Hall, and we were just out there.

CORNISH: What was it like for you to try and interview people, right? I mean, it was your first time kind of walking up to people and just trying to get them to talk to you.

ERIN ADDISON: This is Erin. For me, it was pretty easy because I was part of the hype.

CORNISH: What does hyping mean? What does that look like?

ERIN ADDISON: Hyping's, like, getting everybody excited or, like, in the mood.

AREVALO: Fired up?

ERIN ADDISON: Yeah, fired up. Thank you. Then it was really easy to interview people. People were open, and we all had different kinds of knowledge about the problem or how we see it.

EVAN ADDISON: We were the spark that lit a flame.

CORNISH: Now, you recorded a meeting in your school cafeteria, and that was held shortly after a lot of people learned about the plans to build this waste facility on the plot of land adjacent to the school. And at one point, Jimmy Ventura, this man who is from Maya Energy - they're behind this facility - he's taking some questions from you, and you don't make it easy for him. Here's how it played out.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STEEL CITY ACADEMY PODCAST")

ERIN ADDISON: Now, your fumes...

JIMMY VENTURA: Why are you taping me all the time? (Laughter) OK for you to stop taping me? We're going to talk.

ERIN ADDISON: Will it release fumes?

VENTURA: But - OK, I'll answer if you shut that off for a second.

ERIN ADDISON: Wait.

EVAN ADDISON: Why?

ERIN ADDISON: Will it release fumes?

VENTURA: I don't want to be on tape. I want to talk to you.

ERIN ADDISON: I'll shut it off when I - when you answer this. Will it...

VENTURA: I've answered you (ph) - no.

ERIN ADDISON: I know. Just...

VENTURA: Go ahead. Go ahead.

ERIN ADDISON: Will it release fumes?

CORNISH: Did you ever get your questions answered?

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. Not clearly. He - even after we turned off the recorder, he didn't want to answer nor disclose any information on if it was going to release fumes or not.

CORNISH: Were any of you nervous to approach Jimmy Ventura? I mean, this is the representative of this big, you know, energy company. And I don't know if you've done anything like that before.

ERIN ADDISON: I wasn't nervous at all. If you're going to build a facility like that next to our school, I'm not nervous at all. I'm going to come to you. You're going to know I'm going to be a podcaster. I'm going to have a bag. I'm going to have a audio recorder in my hand. You're going to know that I'm here for answers.

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. Yeah, I was nervous. I guess Erin was more frustrated and angry...

ERIN ADDISON: Very.

EVAN ADDISON: ...More than nervous. And I was nervous because, like, of course I went and did it because, like, I felt like it had to be done. And I felt like I could just get - if I could get as much information as possible so I can help, that'll be good enough for me.

CORNISH: You actually ended up submitting a Freedom of Information request.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "STEEL CITY ACADEMY PODCAST")

ERIN ADDISON: We brought our request to city hall in person, and Evan handed it to the clerk.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How can I help you?

EVAN ADDISON: We have something for FOIA.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Are these all of you?

ERIN ADDISON: Mmm hmm.

EVAN ADDISON: They're all of us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, all of you. Goodness. OK. Give me one second...

CORNISH: She sounded surprised to see you guys (laughter).

ERIN ADDISON: I'm not sure - this is Erin. I'm not sure she expected, yeah, 14-year-olds to be into things like this. But as a reporter, for me, I don't see us as adult and child; I see us as equals.

AREVALO: Our way of getting, like, what we needed was by the law.

ERIN ADDISON: Everybody has a right to know, too.

CORNISH: Throughout this process, you got to meet activists in your community. You got to, you know, speak to some pretty important people. What did all this teach you about power?

EVAN ADDISON: This is Evan. I was always told to stay in a child's place. I'm sure a lot of children are told that. But now I know there are times where you have to tell people that they're wrong.

ERIN ADDISON: This is Erin. Well, see - I can't really put this into fancy words. So I've seen Gary for, like, all of what it is. With the good and bad, you take it all together, and you'd get so much more good than you get bad.

EVAN ADDISON: We've learned that - to be prideful, to be powerful, in a sense, in ourselves.

CORNISH: Well, Erin Addison, Evan Addison and Andrew Arevalo, thank you so much for talking with us and best of luck.

AREVALO: Thank you.

ERIN ADDISON: Thank you, Miss Audie, for interviewing us.

EVAN ADDISON: Yeah, thank you, Miss Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF LELE MARCHITELLI'S "LATER")

CORNISH: In a statement to NPR, Maya Energy says the company went through an extensive permitting process and that the neighborhood is, quote, a terrible location for a school. The statement went on to say that students will be able to visit the facility to learn about the importance of recycling.

(SOUNDBITE OF LELE MARCHITELLI'S "LATER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.