ArcelorMittal’s Burns Harbor facility recently discharged alarming amounts of cyanide and ammonia into the Little Calumet River, which feeds into Lake Michigan.
This discharge, due to a loss of operation of a blast furnace recirculation system, caused the deaths of approximately 3,000 fish and beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Park to close and made national news. While the discharges occurred, the public was left in the dark. It was not until several days after the start of the incident that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management notified the public and local officials. In the interim, people were recreating in the water and fishing from the waters impacted by the discharge. This incident sheds light on major issues with the regulation of large industrial facilities throughout Northwest Indiana.
The ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor facility is part of several ArcelorMittal facilities included in a May 2019 consent decree, stating that ArcelorMittal will pay over 5 million dollars in civil penalties in regards to Clean Air Act violations. It also has exceeded the terms of its permit under the Clean Water Act and for 5 of the last 12 quarters according to the EPA Enforcement and Compliance Online site. With a track record like that, we would hope that this facility would have stringent testing requirements. Instead, required testing for an outfall suspected of excess cyanide discharge was actually reduced from three times a week to only a single time each week in its most recent permit approval. Moreover, the facility only has to notify IDEM within 24 hours after a noncompliance event has occurred. This stipulation means that even after the facility determines that cyanide or ammonia are release, they can wait to notify IDEM for an entire day, potentially leading to hazardous levels of exposure to humans and animals before the public is aware of the risk. Unfortunately, these kinds of terms and conditions are all too common in permits issued to polluting facilities in Northwest Indiana.
Even given the relatively lax permit provisions, the responses from IDEM and ArclorMittal leave many questions unanswered. We still want to know why the public was notified so late, when exactly IDEM became aware of the environmental risk, why that notification was provided without urgency after the discharge was known, and why the notification was not given with a much bigger reach. IDEM states that it informed environmental groups in the region immediately after it was notified, but if environmental groups were notified, neither HEC’s Northwest Indiana Office nor similar environmental groups were among them. IDEM was notified of distressed and dying fish due to a violation of water quality standards as early as Monday, but no notification at all was released until Wednesday evening. Local officials were not notified until Thursday. We want to know the cause of these communications breakdowns and make sure that the timeline for notifying the public in events like these is significantly reduced in the future.
In light of the threats caused by polluters along the lakefront, the Hoosier Environmental Council is starting a project to monitor polluters that regularly break the terms of their permits. Additionally, HEC is working with allies to demand answers from IDEM regarding why notice took so long to reach the public, keep the public informed, and maintain pressure for accountability from polluters.