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GARY — U.S. Steel's Gary Works steel mill partly flooded after a water pipe break early Wednesday, forcing the steelmaker to shut down its blast furnaces and steel-making operations.

"A big water pipe broke, and the steel-making side flooded bad," United Steelworkers District 7 Director Mike Millsap said.

The pipe, much larger than a standard utility pipe, is used by the steel mill on Lake Michigan to bring in lake water to cool its furnaces and other steel-making equipment, Millsap said.

U.S. Steel was forced to shut down blast furnaces as a safety precaution, he said.

"If you put water on hot metal, you've got explosions," Millsap said.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski said the steelmaker is trying to correct the situation, which may have resulted in a discharge into Lake Michigan.

"We have reported a service water leak that caused flooding at our Gary Works facility near our blast furnace operations. Our blast furnaces remain shut down as the issue is investigated," Malkowski said. "We have observed discoloration at the outfall. We are working with IDEM and have notified other appropriate agencies, as well as downstream users. Additional sampling is ongoing. We are working to resolve this issue, with safety and environmental performance as our top priority."

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Millsap said it was the only flooding-related problem at a steel mill he had ever heard of since he first started working with U.S. Steel in 2000.

Steelworkers have been working to assess the extent of the damage and ascertain what repairs are needed. Millsap said it was not immediately clear how long steel-making operations would be disrupted at the massive plant, which is U.S. Steel's largest steel mill and the biggest integrated steel mill in the United States.

"They're analyzing what they've got and what the impact is on the steel-making side," Millsap said. "It's not known how long that's going to take or how bad it is."

Millsap said he heard that the flooding was so bad some employees' cars were filled with water.

"From what I hear, it was bad," Millsap said. "There was a lot of water."

The hulking integrated steel mill at 1 N. Broadway stretches across seven miles of lakeshore along Lake Michigan in Gary. U.S. Steel's flagship mill, which opened in 1906, has a steel-making capability of 7.5 million net tons a year, as well as finishing facilities. It produces hot-rolled, cold-rolled and galvanized sheet steel products for automakers, appliance manufacturers and both residential and commercial construction.

It's also home to a tin mill that makes tin products for cans of food, aerosol cans, paint cans and related products.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.