Aaron Case, associate attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council, talks about the recent release of toxins into the water from the U.S. Steel Midwest Plant and ArcelorMittal on Monday during a program sponsored by the Valparaiso Chain of Lakes Watershed Group. (Amy Lavalley / Post-Tribune)
Aaron Case, associate attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council, talks about the recent release of toxins into the water from the U.S. Steel Midwest Plant and ArcelorMittal on Monday during a program sponsored by the Valparaiso Chain of Lakes Watershed Group. (Amy Lavalley / Post-Tribune)
One fish in distress at the Portage Marina was a sign of what was to come, according to a timeline of the recent leak of cyanide and ammonia by ArcelorMittal as presented by Aaron Corn, associate attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Corn, speaking before the Valparaiso Chain of Lakes Watershed Group on Monday in the Porter County Administration Building, outlined that spill and another on its heels of a petroleum product by U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage and called for greater oversight.

“We need a lot more enforcement and we need it more frequently,” he said.

On Aug. 11, Corn said, a failure in ArcelorMittal’s blast furnace recirculating system, which cools blast furnace water, caused the release of cyanide and ammonia into the water.

ArcelorMittal put out notice of the spill on Aug. 15, Corn said, adding the cyanide leaked from Aug. 13 to Aug. 17, while the ammonia leak continued from Aug. 11 to Aug. 17.

“By the terms of their own permit they had 24 hours to report,” Corn said, adding ArcelorMittal claims the spill was reported within 24 hours of when it was discovered, a point being contested by IDEM.

Almost all of the reporting by the mills is self-reporting, Corn said, adding permitting requirements used to require testing two times a week but are now once a week. That won’t change unless IDEM sees a funding increase, he added.

The marina remained open before the spill was reported, with people surfing and fishing there.

“People were presumably eating the fish,” Corn said. “Without immediate reporting, there’s potential harm to human health and safety.”

Mill officials, Corn said, contend they didn’t know the system failure could cause the increased discharge of the harmful chemicals so didn’t notify the required agencies.

A day later, officials from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources investigated a report of a single fish in distress at the marina.

By the evening of Aug. 13, the number of dead and dying fish had increased considerably and on Aug. 14, after 3,000 fish were reported dead, IDEM and DNR said there was an exceedance of ammonia and cyanide in the water.

Also not notified in a timely fashion was Indiana American Water Company, which has an intake facility in Ogden Dunes, he added.

“When there’s a huge increase of cyanide or ammonia in the water, you don’t want to be drinking it,” he said.

While Lake Michigan is large enough to dilute the spills, Corn said, the discharges have to make their way to the lake for that to happen. Additionally, either ammonia or cyanide could have killed the fish but together, the impact was worse.

“This isn’t an isolated incident and I want to make that perfectly clear,” he said, adding both ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant are under consent decrees for previous pollution.

ArcelorMittal’s decree is for violation of the Clean Air Act, he said, and U.S. Steel’s decree is for the release of hexavalent chromium two years ago.

Corn noted two spills of what’s believed to be a petroleum product by U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant this month and last month and ArcelorMittal’s leaks.

“How many spills go unreported because no one noticed?” he said.

The fines for violating the consent decrees aren’t even a budget line item for a lot of corporations, Corn said, adding even a $5 million fine for several ArcelorMittal plants for violating the Clean Air Act is laughable.
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Environmental activist Larry Davis, who gave a presentation on the 49er Landfill earlier in the evening, said he worked at ArcelorMittal for 41 years and even though he wasn’t responsible for the spills, he was apologetic and embarrassed by them.

The steelmaker, Davis said, has zero discharge plants across the globe but “they’re just not in the United States,” and by not holding them to their permits and higher standards, the mills don’t have an impetus to upgrade and modernize their facilities.
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