On April 2, 2018, the US Department of Justice and the state of Indiana announced a consent decree to resolve US Steel’s 2017 spills of chromium into a waterway that drains into Lake Michigan. There was a 60-day comment period on the proposed consent decree. As proposed, it requires US Steel to:
- pay a financial penalty of $600,000
- reimburse state and federal agencies’ expenses related to the spills
- develop a better notification protocol in case of future spills
- develop wastewater operations and maintenance plans and preventive maintenance plans
- repair wastewater infrastructure
The Hoosier Environmental Council submitted comments requesting a stronger consent decree.
HEC’s comments for a stronger consent decree included requests for:
- more rapid and reliable notification in the event of a future spill
- a higher financial penalty that will serve as a strong incentive to prevent future spills.
- The Consent Decree includes a $600,000 penalty ($300,000 each to the US and Indiana), but under Clean Water Act policy they would be eligible for a maximum penalty of $6.5 million.
- Better engagement with the local community
- a more robust spill prevention and maintenance plan. The initial plan submitted by US Steel is weak and lacking in detail. It is 116 pages, most of which is simply a copy of their current water discharge permit. The plan needs to
- detail methods for inspecting equipment or structures;
- link inspection results to repair and corrective actions; and
- provide clear maintenance recordkeeping requirements.
Comments were also filed by the National Parks Conservation Association, Save the Dunes, the Town of Ogden Dunes, Sierra Club, and the Portage Utility Services Board, as well as many private citizens. Thank you to all who weighed in!
Backgroun: 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.
US Steel Spill of Hexavalent Chromium
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.