U.S. Steel has said it is operating its Midwest Plant in Portage under the terms of a proposed consent decree. Chicago and Surfrider Foundation, which have both sued the steelmaker and been granted permission by a judge to intervene in the government's case against the company, say violations at the facility during the past year show U.S. Steel's conduct is "brash and unacceptable." Staff file photo
U.S. Steel has said it is operating its Midwest Plant in Portage under the terms of a proposed consent decree. Chicago and Surfrider Foundation, which have both sued the steelmaker and been granted permission by a judge to intervene in the government's case against the company, say violations at the facility during the past year show U.S. Steel's conduct is "brash and unacceptable." Staff file photo
PORTAGE — Chicago and the Surfrider Foundation demanded in a letter this week that state and federal environmental officials step up their oversight and enforcement in the wake of violations at U.S. Steel's Portage plant and ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor.

The city and Surfrider also asked the U.S. Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to "convene a discussion of stakeholders" to address concerns about timely notification regarding chemical discharges into Lake Michigan.

"The state of Indiana issues these permits and is supposed to oversee compliance, and U.S. EPA is supposed to oversee the state of Indiana, but neither is sufficiently regulating the permittees to protect Lake Michigan, its beaches and the public," the letter states.

According to the letter, Chicago learned of an August spill of higher-than-permitted levels of cyanide and ammonia into the East Branch of the Little Calumet River from ArcelorMittal though media reports.

Indiana American Water, which operates intakes in Gary and Ogden Dunes, reduced the flow at its Ogden Dunes facility after ArcelorMittal announced the discharges.

Environmental groups have criticized the company for not notifying the government and residents of the spill sooner. The company said it issued notification immediately after data confirming the spill was validated.

EPA and IDEM are both preparing inspection reports. EPA hopes to release its report within 70 days of its inspection.

The law firm Dogan & Dogan and the Hoosier Environmental Council and Environmental Law and Policy Center have served ArcelorMittal with two 60-day notices of their intent to file Clean Water Act lawsuits.

Chicago and Surfrider say state and federal environmental officials must do more.

"We call upon you to improve oversight of permitted industrial facilities, to engage in robust enforcement of the Clean Water Act and other environmental laws, and to require real reform from serious and repeat violators through more impactful penalties and enhanced oversight from regulators," the letter says.

Notification a persistent issue

The ArcelorMittal spill wasn't the first time Chicago didn't receive notice of a discharge into a Lake Michigan tributary from a Northwest Indiana industrial facility.

A similar situation occurred in October 2017, when U.S. Steel released higher-than-permitted levels of chromium into the Burns Waterway and failed to immediately accelerate testing to determine whether the most toxic form of the chemical — hexavalent chromium — had been released.

Earlier in 2017, Chicago was notified of a hexavalent chromium spill from the U.S. Steel facility and spent $75,000 to monitor a plume for five days as it drifted ever closer to one of the city's drinking water intakes, court records say.

The city and Surfrider Foundation sued U.S. Steel in January 2018 for numerous violations of the Clean Water Act, including the April 2017 spill of 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium — or 584 times the daily maximum limit allowed under state permitting laws — into the Burns Waterway.

The Department of Justice and Indiana filed a proposed consent decree that spring, and a federal judge later granted the city and Surfrider permission to intervene in the government's case. The government has not yet moved to finalize the agreement, but U.S. Steel says it is operating under the proposal's terms.

Besides a lack of timely notification of possible illegal discharges, a series of wastewater violations at U.S. Steel's Portage plant also prompted the letter, said Staley Prom, attorney for Surfrider Foundation.

In two separate documents related to oil sheens observed May 9 and Aug. 8 and 20 at U.S. Steel, IDEM inspectors noted deficiencies such as data from the problematic chrome line being recorded on paper that could easily get wet, an operation plan that needed to be revised or rewritten, and employees who didn't know the capacity of the treatment facility where they worked.

For the second time in two years, IDEM inspectors cited U.S. Steel for failing to immediately accelerate sampling when a problem was first observed.

Consent decree process ongoing

IDEM said in September the recent violations at the facility would not affect the consent decree process.

EPA said it doesn't comment "on ongoing enforcement matters and cannot comment on any impact recent incidents may or may not have on ongoing matters."

Chicago and Surfrider Foundation say they cannot accept the consent decree as written.

"IDEM inspectors have indicated that U.S. Steel actively misled them during an investigation in response to illegal water pollution, that U.S. Steel's wastewater treatment practices continue to be dangerously mismanaged and that U.S. Steel continues to refuse to take appropriate steps to prevent, investigate and respond to violations of the law," the letter says. "IDEM inspectors have specifically connected these recent violations by U.S. Steel to the same behaviors and policies of the company that preceeded your proposed consent decree. Clearly, the consent decree as it currently stands in inadequate."

IDEM's inspectors noted a number of violations that show "U.S. Steel's violations involved brash and unacceptable conduct," the letter states.

The government is not legally required to respond to the letter, but the city and Surfrider hope they do, Prom said.

U.S. Steel has said it's committed to safety and environmental stewardship and that it takes its reporting responsibilities seriously.

The company said in September it was continuing to work with regulators to improve its internal processes.
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