PORTAGE — Several beaches remained closed Wednesday as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continued intensive monitoring of Tuesday’s toxic chemical spill from U.S. Steel into the Burns Waterway, about 100 yards from Lake Michigan.
The EPA had not yet determined the amount of hexavalent chromium — a toxic byproduct of industrial processes — that was discharged into the waterway, Sam Borries, branch chief of the EPA’s Region 5 emergency response team, told reporters Wednesday near the U.S. Steel site.
U.S. Steel said an equipment failure at its Midwest Plant in Portage resulted in a chemical leak into the waterway that forced the shutdown of a drinking water intake along Lake Michigan and several nearby beaches.
The spill forced the closure Tuesday of Indiana American Water's intake in Ogden Dunes and several beaches, including West Beach and Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and Ogden Dunes' town beach. On Wednesday, the National Park Service announced the closure of Cowles Bog Beach.
The closure of Cowles Bog Beach was “based on a recommendation that all beaches within three miles of the discharge be closed as a precaution to protect the health of park visitors," NPS said in a news release.
Hexavalent chromium is the same carcinogenic chemical that appeared in the 2000 biographical film, "Erin Brockovich," and can cause reversible and irreversible skin lesions on direct contact, the nonprofit Save the Dunes said in a news release.
Direct skin contact with hexavalent chromium can cause a nonallergic skin irritation, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Contact with nonintact skin also can lead to chrome ulcers. These are small crusted skin sores with a rounded border. They heal slowly and leave scars.
Save the Dunes warned "people and pets should avoid direct contact with Lake Michigan" until further notice.
A fish kill is expected to be the result, the nonprofit environmental group said.
EPA's Borries said various sampling showed hexavalent chromium was not detected in Lake Michigan, but low levels were detected Tuesday night in the Burns ditch, which flows directly into the lake.
The EPA, the agency leading the investigation into the spill, continues to conduct sampling at the outfall, water intake, beaches and the Burns ditch.
Initial tests at the Indiana American Water intake showed chemical levels slightly above the detection limit, but a subsequent test of the same sample showed it was at or below the detection limit and well below EPA’s health-based standard for drinking water.
"Things are improving. The (plant's) processes are shut down. We don’t see the discharge occurring at this point," Borries said Wednesday.
Borries said EPA plans to collect sediment samples to determine if residual chemicals settled.
EPA’s Borries said he does not expect any additional beach closures, but monitoring is ongoing.
“Again, the closings that have occurred have been out of an abundance of caution to make sure no one would be impacted, not knowing what the size of the release was at the time,” he said.
U.S. Steel reported the release of wastewater Tuesday from the Tin and Tin Free electroplating process, the company said.
"The wastewater is from the process used to treat the steel strip after electroplating, and the rinse water from this process is conveyed via pipe to a dedicated treatment plant," U.S. Steel said in a statement. "The preliminary investigation revealed that an expansion joint in the rinse water pipe failed and resulted in the water being released to a different wastewater treatment plant and ultimately Burns Waterway through an outfall."
U.S. Steel said it notified several other agencies and shut down all of its production processes.
"Additional steps to mitigate the impact are being taken," U.S. Steel said. "These steps include the isolation and repair of the damaged pipe, recovery of material, and the addition of a water treatment compound, sodium trithiocarbonate (CNa2S3), to the waste water treatment plant to convert and aid in the removal of hexavalent chromium."
Info trickled to residents?
Save the Dunes’ Executive Director Natalie Johnson questioned Wednesday why the National Park Service was the first agency to issue information Tuesday afternoon about the beach closures and the chemical spill.
The spill occurred at about 9 a.m. Tuesday and EPA was notified at about 9:30 a.m., authorities said. But beach users were not notified of the closures until after NPS issued the release to news media at about 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, according to Johnson.
Though Johnson applauded the EPA’s coordination of monitoring efforts on Wednesday, Johnson said the dissemination of information by U.S. Steel, the EPA and others could have been handled better, she said.
“The most alarming event is that the fact that the information trickled to the residents as slowly as it did,” Johnson said.
“This is a case where we need to better coordinate an action plan. What happens if this happens again? What happens when this happens again? We’re an area of industry and these kinds of things, they’re bound to happen,” she added.
Save the Dunes said Lake Michigan is a primary source of drinking water for many residents of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
Ogden Dunes officials said the town's drinking water is currently coming from Indiana American's plant in Gary. EPA said the water intake at Ogden Dunes was shut down "out of an abundance of caution."
A news release from Indiana American Water stated they opted to shut down the intake based on discussions with IDEM.
“We will be consulting with IDEM, EPA and other agencies to confirm there is no threat to the water supply prior before placing the Ogden Dunes water treatment facility back in service,” the release stated.
The EPA, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, U.S. Coast Guard, NPS and Indiana American Water were on site Tuesday. The Department of Fish and Wildlife participated via phone, according to U.S. Steel. The company said it would continue to work with local, state and federal agencies to resolve the problem.
Ogden Dunes Town Council President Tim Nelson said town officials are monitoring the situation and awaiting additional information.
"We are gathering information right now. It is too early to tell if there is an impact on the town," Nelson said.
Check back at nwi.com for updates to this story.
Times staff writer Joyce Russell contributed to this report.