Understanding the Issues

U.S. Steel’s Repeated Chemical Spills (Updated: November 22, 2017)

We have been following the unfortunate events in Portage surrounding the repeated spills by U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant of hexavalent chromium — a hazardous, cancer-causing chemical — into Burns Waterway, a ditch that drains directly to Lake Michigan. As detailed below, the first spill apparently caused by a failed pipe, occurred in April of 2017 and forced the nearby Ogden Dunes community to shut off its drinking water intake and four beaches to close in the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore. As recently reported by the Northwest Indiana Times, state environmental regulators at IDEM did not pursue an enforcement action after the first spill and U.S. Steel apparently did not take appropriate action to address its faulty piping. However, this failure to act was not brought to light until after a second leak of hexavalent chromium occurred at the plant on October 25, 2017, also due to failed infrastructure at the facility. In addition, the second spill was not reported to the public by IDEM or U.S. Steel for reasons we are still trying to understand. Instead, U.S. Steel apparently sought “confidential treatment” from IDEM according to public records obtained by the U of C Environmental Law Clinic. Also troubling, no one notified the nearby Indiana American Water Company or the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore whose officials learned about the second spill from news reports. We are deeply concerned not only about U.S. Steel’s failure to take immediate steps after the first spill to prevent another from occurring but also about IDEM’s apparent failure to take swift action and to provide the oversight necessary to ensure that U.S. Steel is doing everything it can to protect Lake Michigan, a source of drinking water for millions of people. We will update this webpage as we learn more about this unfolding situation. In the interim, we applaud the efforts by the U. of C. Environmental Law Clinic and the Surfrider Foundation to hold U.S. Steel accountable.

(Information on 1st spill: posted April 15, 2017)

On Tuesday, April 11, 2017, we learned that the U.S. Steel Midwest Plant in Portage reported a spill of hexavalent chromium – a hazardous, cancer-causing chemical — into Burns Waterway within 100 yards of Lake Michigan. The spill, apparently caused by a failed pipe, prompted the nearby Ogden Dunes community to shut off its drinking water intake and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to close four beaches as a precaution.

On April 13, 2017, U.S. EPA reported that water sampling showed no significant trace of the chemical in the lake or Burns Waterway and that U.S. Steel planned to restart operations at the plant on the 14th, even though the beaches and drinking water intake would remain closed. Since then, we continue to hear that beach sand and water samples are coming back with no detection of hexavalent chromium.

While the extent of damage from this spill is not yet known, we are reminded that hexavalent chromium is routinely found in drinking water supplies across the nation including Lake Michigan, which is the source of drinking water for millions of people in Chicago and communities in Northwest Indiana. In fact, U.S. Steel’s Gary Works, the largest industrial polluter on the Great Lakes, is legally allowed to discharge hundreds of pounds of chromium into the lake every year. And, in 2007, the plant sought to relax its Clean Water Act permit discharge limits on chromium. Fortunately, U.S. EPA blocked the lax permit in response to significant public outcry and recently has been working on developing the first national drinking water standards for the metal.

Both efforts highlight the critical role of U.S. EPA in safeguarding our drinking water supplies. Unfortunately, the Trump administration is seeking to drastically reduce funding for the agency including funding for critical programs directed at enforcement of environmental laws and cleanup and restoration work on the Great Lakes. At the same time, Indiana continues to underfund IDEM, Indiana’s state environmental agency.   HEC has met with several key legislators who are instrumental to the budget process — as well as with senior Holcomb Administration officials — to make the case for more funding, particularly for IDEM’s drinking water and clean up programs.

The fact that this dangerous chemical has not reached Lake Michigan is fortunate. But we remain concerned that a dangerous chemical was allowed to spill into a Lake Michigan tributary where it could harm millions of people in Indiana and Illinois in the first place. We are deeply concerned that U.S. Steel’s internal inspection and oversight measures were not sufficient to identify the pipe defect before the spill. Making sure that industrial polluters like U.S. Steel are doing everything they can to protect the air we breathe and water we drink is exactly why U.S. EPA and IDEM exist. Therefore, we urge Congress to not move forward with the proposed, drastic cuts to the EPA budget and we urge the Holcomb administration to increase general fund support for IDEM by 10% this budget cycle.


For the most recent information on testing and beach closures, please check the U.S. EPA and National Park Service websites.


The potentially devastating situation in the vicinity of the US Steel hexavalent chromium spill is a reminder of the need for adequate funding for both Indiana’s state environmental agency, IDEM, as well as the US EPA:   You can help by contacting your state legislators to urge them to support a 10% increase in IDEM “general funding” to pay for more IDEM water staff: http://bit.ly/1LVrr64

Indiana’s Coal Ash Problem

Learn about the dangerous issue of Coal Ash in Indiana.

Existing Challenges to Indiana’s Waterways

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s 2012 Impaired Waters List is below.  View the number of impairments for the last four years in this searchable table:

Pollutant2008 final 303(d) Impairments2010 draft 303(d) Impairments2010 final 303(d) Impairments2012 draft 303(d) Impairments

Total Cyanide
Free Cyanide0N/A2730
Dissolved Oxygen
E. coli
Mercury (Water)024766
Mercury (fish tissue)324313355348
PCBs (water)0N/A6969
PCBs (fish tissue)653640612618
Impaired biotic communities
Total dissolved solids


Some of these impairments can be easily prevented. This is why the Hoosier Environmental Council has created a watershed restoration toolkit to assist citizens, neighborhood groups and others in protecting their water quality.

Learn more about these impairments.


After nearly two decades of negotiations and revisions, Indiana passed a state-wide anti-degradation policy, which took effect in 2012.

Anti-degradation is a policy which provides for a review of a proposed new or increased discharge to determine if it is necessary and unavoidable before approval is granted.  As part of the watershed “toolkit” used by government agencies, it will ensure that an anti-degradation review is conducted to assess the best available technologies and weigh the social and economic benefits of potential sources of water pollution against the further degradation of a waterway.

Simply put — anti-degradation is designed to keep waterways from getting any more polluted. 

Learn more about anti-degradation here.

Blue-Green Algae

Blue-green algae is an increasing problem in Indiana’s waterways.  In 2012, two dogs died from exposure to blue-green algae after swimming in the Salamonie Reservoir.

In response to the issue of algae — which impedes recreation, endangers pets and wildlife, and causes issues with taste and odor in drinking water — the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has begun developing new standards for phosphorus in lakes and reservoirs. 


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