After another chemical spill, environmentalists urge action to protect Indiana Dunes

Indiana Dunes
The mouth of the Burns Waterway that connects to Lake Michigan. The nearby U.S. Steel Plant this week discharged iron-contaminated wastewater forcing the shutdown of nearby beaches of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Michael Puente / WBEZ
Indiana Dunes
The mouth of the Burns Waterway that connects to Lake Michigan. The nearby U.S. Steel Plant this week discharged iron-contaminated wastewater forcing the shutdown of nearby beaches of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Michael Puente / WBEZ

After another chemical spill, environmentalists urge action to protect Indiana Dunes

Jay Combs cast his line into the Burns Waterway at the Riverwalk Pavilion in Portage, Indiana on a cool Wednesday evening.

“There’s freshwater salmon, trout. That’s what I’ve seen out here. There’s also catfish,” Combs said as the sun set on the waterway that connects to Lake Michigan.

When asked if he eats the fish he catches in the waterway, Combs said no.

“I don’t eat out of here” he said. “I think it’s common knowledge that anybody that fishes around here knows they don’t eat out of here.”

According to Combs, fishermen used to eat the fish they caught, but that’s before several incidents of chemical discharge from the U.S. Steel Midwest plant that’s on the east side of the 5,540-foot canal and is adjacent to the Riverwalk Pavilion and Indiana Dunes National Park.

Iron-contaminated wastewater from the plant leaked into the Lake Michigan tributary on Sunday, closing beaches at the national park and stalling operations at the plant.

Jay Combs
Jay Combs cast his fishing line into Burns Waterway on Tuesday evening in Portage, Indiana. Combs said he doesn’t eat the fish that he catches since the U.S. Steel Plant right across from the pier recently discharged pollutants into the lake. Michael Puente / WBEZ

Preliminary tests from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) show the leak poses no risk to public health. As federal agencies continue to investigate the spill for possible violations of the Clean Water Act, environmentalists and local officials question what steps U.S. Steel will take to prevent future harm.

“It’s a national park and nobody acts like it is. This is not a city park or state park. It’s a national park,” a disgruntled Combs, who is a resident of nearby Valparaiso, said. “They’ll probably get a slap on the wrist. Business as usual. .. I think we need someone to go in there and make sure they are doing quality control the way they say they’re doing. This is not the first time and it’s probably not the last time.”

In April 2017, an unknown amount of cancer-causing hexavalent chromium was discharged from the plant. That leak also forced the shutdown of beaches and even closed water intake pumps in Lake Michigan.

The City of Chicago sued U.S. Steel for damages and for threatening the drinking water source for millions of residents.

The lawsuit’s outcome was a Nov. 2019 consent decree entered into by Chicago, the EPA, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), the National Park Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Surfrider Foundation,the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Steel.

Indiana Dunes National Park
A small, yellow oil boom aims to capture discharged pollutants from the U.S. Steel plant that is situation along the Burns Waterway and next to the Indiana Dunes National Park in Portage, Indiana. Michael Puente / WBEZ

The decree requires U.S. Steel to pay $1.2 million for violations of the Clean Water Act and, supposedly, assured that the company would take substantial measures to improve wastewater treatment and monitoring systems.

“I don’t think I could be more disappointed. [U.S. Steel] told us they were going to clean their act up and they haven’t on the outfall that was responsible for the release the other day. This is terribly discouraging,” said Jim Sweeney, vice president of the Porter County chapter of the Izaak Walton League, one of the oldest environmental groups in the country.

In early September, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana approved a revised consent decree, strengthening the public and stakeholder notification procedures U.S. Steel must undergo “in the event of a spill or release to ground, soil or water.”

The revised decree also included a water quality testing and reporting project overseen by the state of Indiana at locations near the Dunes and Lake Michigan, costing U.S. Steel $600,000 over three years.

“Lake Michigan is one of our most prized natural resources and we are committed to protecting it,” Cheryl Newton, acting administrator for EPA Region 5, said in a written statement in September. “EPA will continue to make sure facilities comply with the federal requirements that safeguards our communities and our lakes and rivers.

Other local officials weighed in to support the decree’s renewal.

“I am proud of the work IDEM has done, along with our federal and community partners, to finalize this consent decree,” said Bruno Pigott, IDEM’s commissioner, in a September press release. “It requires U.S. Steel to undertake numerous measures to improve its facility which will ensure the future protection of Lake Michigan and northwest Indiana’s environment.”

Indiana Dunes National Park
A boat sails through the Burns Waterway from the Portage Marina on its way to Lake Michigan. To the left, is U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant which had another episode of discharging pollutants into the waterway, causing shutdown of nearby beaches of the Indiana Dunes National Park. Michael Puente / WBEZ

But Sweeney thinks this latest spill should elicit another look at the consent decree.

“It’s just unforgivable that they had another large discharge from the same outfall,” Sweeney said. “That tells me there are some serious mechanical problems inside that plant that haven’t been addressed.”

Beaches were closed in response to Sunday’s spill. But after several days of testing, the EPA said it did not pose any health risks to people who may have come into direct contact with the sheen.

“EPA’s preliminary sample results also currently indicate that the discharge was below the numeric effluent discharge limits contained in U.S. Steel’s NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit,” Rachel Bassler, EPA’s public affairs officer, said in a press release. “Federal and state agencies continue to investigate the matter to determine the cause of the discharge and possible Clean Water Act compliance issues, as well as environmental impacts and further actions that are necessary to ensure future compliance.”

Despite reassurance from officials, Portage Mayor Sue Lynch said the entire episode is troubling.

“It kind of stains our name. It’s bad press for us. But the bottom line is we, we didn’t directly do anything.The agencies are the ones that have to respond to issues like this,” Lynch said.

Lynch knows the delicate balance between heavy industry, and the jobs and taxes it brings to Northwest Indiana, and protecting the environment.

In Aug. 2019, another steel plant very close to Portage discharged heavy amounts of ammonia and cyanide into the Little Calumet River, which also connects to Lake Michigan. The episode killed approximately 3,000 fish and shut down beaches, water intake pumps and the nearby Portage Marina.

Lynch thinks steel plants like U.S. Steel need to do better.

“They need to be good neighbors. We try to be good neighbors to them. We have a lot of city people that are employed out there. We have jobs and it helps our economy. But they still need to be good neighbors and do what they’re supposed to do,” Lynch said.

U.S. Steel, which shut down operations when the discharge occurred, was back up and running on Wednesday.

“Preliminary sampling results have shown that we remain in compliance with numeric permit limits. Analysis of the water from the outfall taken during the time of the incident showed elevated concentrations of iron causing the discoloration. There are no indications of permit level exceedances for hexavalent and total chromium, as those sampling results came in well below permit limits.,” said a spokesperson from U.S. Steel in a statement this week.

U.S. Steel offered no comment on how to prevent another discharge in the future.

Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.