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Beaches closed after chemical spill in water near Lake Michigan

Burns Waterway is seen last April, after officials announced they determined a wastewater discharge from U.S. Steel's Portage facility contained hexavalent chromium. The carcinogenic chemical is a toxic byproduct of industrial processes that can cause reversible and irreversible skin lesions on direct contact, according to Save the Dunes.

More than a dozen organizations asked Friday for a public hearing and more time to comment on a proposed settlement requiring U.S. Steel’s Portage plant to pay a civil penalty and damages, reimburse government agencies and make improvements for spilling toxic chromium into a Lake Michigan tributary last year.

The comment period for the proposed consent decree began Friday and is scheduled to end May 7, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal and state government officials announced the consent decree Monday.

The organizations said 30 days is not enough time for the millions of people in Northwest Indiana and Chicago who drink Lake Michigan water and visit its beaches to adequately analyze the proposed settlement and offer informed comments.

“The public deserves more time to better understand a deal that will impact their drinking water, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and the multimillion-dollar tourism economy the park supports,” said Colin Deverell, Midwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. “EPA has had nearly a year to review the record — the public should have ample opportunity as well.”

Details about a new wastewater monitoring plan, a comprehensive wastewater maintenance plan and a preventative maintenance plan have not yet been made public. Without those documents, residents will not be able to adequately analyze the proposed deal, Deverell said.

The groups want to make sure U.S. Steel is taking every precaution to protect public health and resources, he said.

The organizations also think the $600,000 civil penalty isn’t enough to send the signal that future violations will not be tolerated, said Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council.

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

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 a lawsuit filed against U.S. Steel on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said the civil penalty “is consistent with state and federal civil penalty policies.”

The consent decree case was assigned to U.S. District Judge Joseph Van Bokkelen. The judge will decide whether the comment period is extended, IDEM said.

“IDEM would like U.S. Steel to be under an enforceable document as quickly as possible so that U.S. Steel can meet the compliance requirements of the consent decree, reimburse the response agencies for their work, and provide the National Parks Service with compensation for days of closure,” IDEM said. “Because of this, entry of this consent decree is important to IDEM.”

All documents submitted pursuant to the proposed consent decree will be uploaded to IDEM’s online database called the Virtual File Cabinet, the department said.

The Environmental Protection Agency did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

The Surfrider Foundation and city of Chicago, whose lawsuits against U.S. Steel were consolidated in March, this week agreed to stay their cases pending a final consent decree.

A final consent decree resolving claims made by the United States and Indiana could narrow or resolve most of the claims by Surfrider and Chicago, according to court records. The public notice and comment period also will provide attorneys for Surfrider and Chicago to negotiate and settle any potentially unresolved issues and avoid further litigation.

Robert Weinstock, an attorney at the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic who is working on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation, said, “We appreciate the fact that many other organizations are following this case and are advocating and advancing the public’s concerns related to U.S. Steel’s Clean Water Act violations.”

In addition to the National Parks Conservation Association and the Hoosier Environmental Council, organizations seeking a public hearing and extension of the comment period include Save the Dunes, the town of Ogden Dunes, the Izaak Walton League, Community Strategy Group, Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations, Sierra Club, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Conservation Law Center, Audubon Society, Elevate Energy, Metropolitan Planning Council and the Indiana Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.

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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.