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Surfrider sues U.S. Steel over violations at lakefront plant in Portage

A sign from the National Park Service shows the walkway in Portage's Lakefront Park along the water was closed April 12, 2017, due to a chemical spill from U.S. Steel.

Chicago and the Surfrider Foundation on Monday sent a letter to the U.S. EPA threatening to oppose a proposed settlement with U.S. Steel for a toxic chemical spill and other Clean Water Act violations at its Portage plant if the government fails to address several concerns.

The city and nonprofit foundation, both of which have agreed to put their lawsuits against U.S. Steel on hold, said the proposed consent decree filed April 2 in U.S. District Court in Hammond is “unfair, unreasonable and inadequate.”

Chicago and Surfrider plan “to advocate for a number of improvements and changes through all available forums,” the letter said.

“We will oppose entry of any consent decree that does not properly hold U.S. Steel accountable for its actions as well as ensure that the plant is never again the site of another dangerous incident such as those that occurred in April and October 2017,” the letter stated.

U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage spilled nearly 300 pounds of highly toxic hexavalent chromium, or 584 times the daily maximum limit allowed under state permitting laws, into the Burns Waterway in April. In October, the plant discharged 56.7 pounds of chromium, or nearly twice the daily allowable limit, into the waterway.

Violations since 2013 include at least 90 days of self-reported pollutant discharge exceedances, more than 30 monitoring and reporting failures, and at least six maintenance violations, according to the Surfrider Foundation’s lawsuit against U.S. Steel.

EPA, IDEM say more to be released

The parties outlined three “threshold” matters in their letter, including demands that the Department of Justice immediately finalize and publish an extension of the comment period and that federal and state governments and U.S. Steel immediately release all plans, reports and other documents related to the proposed consent decree.

Chicago and the Surfrider Foundation also want the Department of Justice to commit to supporting or taking no position if they seek to intervene in enforcement actions such as the proposed consent decree.

“It is critical to include our perspective as parties to achieve an appropriate, efficient resolution,” the letter states.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management have said they will agree to extend the comment period, initially scheduled to end May 7, an additional 30 days. It’s unclear exactly what day an extended comment period would end, because the extension must be published in the Federal Register.

IDEM said it also has placed a link on its homepage, www.idem.IN.gov, to all relevant documents related to the proposed consent decree for U.S. Steel.

“We will be posting the wastewater operation and maintenance plan and preventive maintenance program plan as soon as they are available,” an IDEM spokesman said Monday.

U.S. Steel was required to submit the plans to IDEM and EPA for review by April 15, court documents state.

Those plans will include proposed timetables for components outlined in the proposed consent decree and are subject to review and approval by EPA and IDEM, according to EPA. The agency said the plans will be made public this week.

More than a dozen organizations, including the National Parks Conservation Association, on Friday sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking for a public hearing and an extension of the public comment period.

Neither EPA nor IDEM has indicated any plans for a public hearing.

Lynn McClure, senior director of regional operations for the National Parks Conservation Association, said all of the groups that signed last week's letter will be watching closely.

“One of the most important points here is that we’re all being asked to step up and say what we think of this proposal without getting to see a lot of it, with the reports that haven’t been made public yet,” she said.

While it’s good news state and federal governments plan to extend the comment period and release more documents, “it shouldn’t take litigants and people requesting a comment extension to make that happen,” she said.

Parties criticize penalty amount

Like some of the organizations, Chicago and the Surfrider Foundation said in their letter a $600,000 civil penalty for U.S. Steel is insufficient to reflect the gravity and risk of harm it caused to Lake Michigan, a source of drinking water and recreational opportunities for millions of people.

IDEM and EPA have said the civil penalty is consistent with federal and state policies.

“The United States will review and consider concerns raised about the amount of the civil penalty during the public comment period and will respond to those concerns,” EPA said.

Chicago and Surfrider also said the proposed consent decree fails to focus on the needs of south shore communities, such as through a supplemental environmental project in lieu of a penalty deposited in state and federal treasuries; does not go far enough in proposing an early warning notification system; and should include third-party testing to determine potential impacts beyond those identified during immediate spill responses.

“Lake Michigan is our region’s most precious resource, and we are determined to change this situation permanently and positively and to prevent such violations from recurring,” the letter said.

As part of the proposed settlement, U.S. Steel also agreed to pay $240,500 in damages to the National Park Service, which closed several beaches after the April spill, and reimburse the park service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration $12,500 and $27,500 for response costs, respectively.

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Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.