PORTAGE — Recent water samples detected no levels of a cancer-causing chemical at area beaches following Tuesday's toxic leak by U .S. Steel into a Lake Michigan tributary, but National Park Service staff said they remain concerned about potential impacts to beach users' health and long-term harm to wildlife and other park resources.
Park service staff said they are working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on developing a long-term monitoring plan after hexavalent chromium, a byproduct of industrial processes, was discharged Tuesday into the Burns Waterway about 100 yards from Lake Michigan due to a U.S. Steel equipment failure.
Periodic beach patrols are underway at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore looking for evidence of fish kills or other environmental damage, NPS said.
"Lake currents and waves have the ability to move this hazardous material onto park beaches at a later date," the park service said in a news release.
EPA water samples detected no levels of the chemical at the National Lakeshore's West Beach, Cowles Bog Beach, and the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk beach, but beach sand samples are pending, NPS said.
Company planned Friday restart
U.S. Steel on Friday announced plans to restart operations that same day, as government agencies continue "robust water and soil sampling" after the company's Midwest facility spilled an undetermined amount of hexavalent chromium into the Burns Waterway.
Indiana American Water’s nearby intake — the nearest drinking water intake to the spill site — remains closed until at least Monday and access to certain parks and beaches remains restricted, authorities have said.
The restart was set to begin Friday with a line-by-line restart of operations that do not use chromium, and U. S. Steel will take samples from the facility every two hours, the company said. The company and participating government agencies will also conduct "vigorous visual inspections and water quality monitoring" at the outfall and surrounding areas, the company stated.
"If elevated levels of chromium are detected, all operations will be immediately shutdown. If all non-chromium-involved lines restart successfully and sampling is acceptable, the lines that involve chromium would be restarted in the same controlled, phased, and highly monitored manner," the company said Friday.
"Overnight and throughout the morning, U. S. Steel continued extensive testing on the repairs made at our Midwest Plant and continues to monitor environmental compliance with all of our systems. Recent sampling has indicated we are in compliance with our water permit limits," the company said.
U.S. Steel detected the leak about 9 a.m. Tuesday, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was notified about 9:30 a.m., officials said. Since that time, the EPA has conducted sampling at the outfall from U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant, Indiana American's water intake, Lake Michigan beaches to the east and west of the waterway and Burns ditch, the agency said.
Preliminary results of water samples collected by the EPA from Burns Waterway and Lake Michigan, including Indiana American Water’s intake, on Wednesday, do not indicate hexavalent chromium impacts in either water body. All results were below EPA’s method detection limit of 1 part per billion.
The federal agency said it took about 100 samples Wednesday and another 100 Thursday following a discharge of wastewater containing hexavalent chromium, a byproduct of industrial processes, into the Burns Waterway.
Four nearby beaches and Indiana American Water's intake at Ogden Dunes have been closed "out of an abundance of caution" in the wake of the spill, officials said.
Drinking water standards
Overnight levels from Tuesday to Wednesday at the outfall were as high as 2,231 parts per billion, according to the EPA. That's about 22 times higher than EPA's federal drinking water standard for total chromium, which includes both trivalent chromium and hexavalent chromium, is 100 parts per billion, according to the EPA's website.
EPA has a national drinking water standard for total chromium of 100 parts per billion, the EPA said Friday. EPA does not have a separate hexavalent chromium standard. However, EPA is currently evaluating health effects data to determine if a hexavalent chromium maximum contaminant level is needed.
Chicago conducted its own sampling this week near its water intake 1 mile from the spill site and detected a hexavalent chromium level of 2 parts per billion, EPA said. Normal levels for hexavalent chromium in Lake Michigan range between 0.14 to 0.15 parts per billion, according to Chicago's Water Management Department.
"Water intake results initially showed hexavalent chromium levels slightly above the detection limit," EPA said. "A confirmation run on that same sample showed that it was at or below the detection limit, well below EPA’s health-based standard for drinking water."
Indiana American continues to operate its Borman Park facility, which is closer to the spill site than Chicago's intake. An Indiana American spokesman said the company is sampling at its Borman Park intake. The supply of water from the Borman Park facility is adequate to meet the needs of the company's customers in Northwest Indiana, he said.
On Wednesday, EPA described levels found in the Burns ditch as low and said water sampling showed hexavalent chromium was not detected in Lake Michigan.
U.S. Steel attributed the spill to an equipment failure from the Tin and Tin Free electroplating process at the Portage plant. Plant processes were shut down after the spill, officials said.