Updated 5:48 P.M. Aug. 22
Editors note: The Portage, Ind., beach that had been closed for a week because of excess cyanide and ammonia was reopened Thursday afternoon.
On most summer days you can find Dana Bourne on his boat, “Just Chillin,” in the public marina in Portage, Indiana.
He often takes his boat out past the breakwater on Lake Michigan to fish. But these days, Bourne is having to sail further east toward Michigan City.
That’s because fishing and swimming at the Portage lakefront have been off-limits since last week when a nearby steel company, ArcelorMittal, dumped excess cyanide and ammonia into a river that leads into Lake Michigan.
Thousands of fish died, and Portage’s summer recreation industry is hurting from a ban on swimming and fishing. The spill was bad enough, but area residents are angry it took so long to learn about it.
“We can’t fish, obviously, because they’re all dead. We mostly go out to the beach and swim, but I can’t do that either,” Bourne, of Portage, said Tuesday. “They didn’t report to us what happened, which is disgusting. There were people in the beach on those days swimming in those chemicals, and no one even said anything about it.”
Here’s the timeline of what happened:
On August 11, the ArcelorMittal steel plant began spilling more ammonium and cyanide than its permit allows into the Little Calumet River, an east-west tributary about a mile south of Lake Michigan.
On August 12, a citizen found a dead fish in the river and alerted the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and another state agency.
But those agencies didn’t notify the public.
Two days later, thousands more dead fish were found.
The cause was traced to ArcelorMittal’s Burns Harbor plant, which had far exceeded its daily maximum limit for ammonia and cyanide discharges.
Portage officials didn’t receive word about the spill until Thursday, three days after it happened.
“The facts are we should have been informed as soon as the spill occurred Sunday night, or Monday,” Portage Mayor John Cannon said Tuesday. “We were not informed by ArcelorMittal or IDEM or DNR or EPA.”
Natalie Johnson, executive director of the nonprofit Save the Dunes Conservation Fund, based in Michigan City, said ArcelorMittal violated its permit when it failed to notify IDEM immediately.
“Under their permit, they have a 24-hour window to report to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management when they find themselves noncompliant,” Johnson said. “That’s a pretty wide window.”
Johnson wants to know why it took several days for ArcelorMittal and IDEM to disclose the spill.
“The public didn’t find out until very late Wednesday evening,” Johnson said. “An organization [like IDEM] that is meant to safeguard the public’s health and the health of the environment — we would want to see being more proactive in alerting everyone that something isn’t right.”
Neither ArcelorMittal nor IDEM would comment on the time it took to notify the public about the spill last week.
ArcelorMittal released a statement saying the spill happened due to a failure of the blast furnace water recirculation system that released wastewater containing elevated levels of ammonia and cyanide.
The Luxembourg-based company said Wednesday that levels for cyanide and ammonia-nitrogen in the Little Calumet River have “significantly declined.” ArcelorMittal said water sampling results from 15 different locations show there were “zero to barely detectable traces” of ammonia and cyanide.
That’s welcome news to Cannon, who is still seething about the delayed notification by ArcelorMittal. It isn’t always this way with spills, he said.
U.S. Steel Corp. promptly contacted his office about a discharge of an oily substance into the Burns Waterway on Tuesday morning. That waterway, adjacent to the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Pavilion, connects to Lake Michigan.
“They contacted me in this office immediately,” Cannon said of U.S. Steel, “but that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
In April 2018, U.S. Steel entered into a consent decree with the U.S. EPA, IDEM and other agencies to settle a lawsuit over discharging heavy amounts of hexavalent chromium into Burns Waterway. The Pittsburgh-based company also paid $900,000 to settle the lawsuit.
Cannon said ArcelorMittal could be penalized for its spill last week.
“I believe they are going to be fined, and they should be fined,” he said.
Larry Trepac, another boater who was at the Portage marina on Tuesday, said he’s a former steelworker who understands the thorny relationship between the industry and the environment. But he said after years of efforts to clean up nearby waterways, industry should be more careful.
“This is kind of a special area for Indiana,” Trepac said. “You kind of hope to see it go well.”
For boaters like Bourne who haven’t been able to do normal fishing and swimming since the ArcelorMittal spill was disclosed, a fine means little.
“The steel mills do what they want. They feel it’s cheaper to pay the fine than actually do what’s supposed to be done,” he said.
Michael Puente covers Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.