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PORTAGE — IDEM learned Oct. 31 that groundwater resampling at U.S. Steel's troubled Midwest Plant had again detected elevated levels of toxic hexavalent chromium, but those data were not included in a draft permit renewal the department issued Nov. 2 for a hazardous waste landfill at the site, records show.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management last week defended its decision to issue the permit, saying the process takes many months.

"The draft permit renewal was prepared prior to the submittal of U.S. Steel's Oct. 31, 2018, letter," the department said. "Further, IDEM needs to thoroughly evaluate the results described in the Oct. 31 letter prior to providing an opinion on those results."

When asked if the department was under a deadline to issue the draft landfill permit, IDEM said yes: "internal metrics" along with a statutory deadline.

An attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, which last week was granted permission to directly intervene in the government's lawsuit against U.S. Steel, said the omission withholds from public review how IDEM intends to deal with the issue.

Robert Weinstock, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, said IDEM was under no obligation to issue the permit Nov. 2.

"By issuing this draft permit without mentioning the fact that U.S. Steel had just told the agency that they were continuing to see elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, IDEM is effectively burying that information and preventing public comment," he said. "That piece of information, which is very salient to what is going on in the groundwater at this facility, is not in this package, even though IDEM had it."

The public comment period for the draft permit ends Monday. No public hearings have been requested, IDEM said.

Possible release to groundwater

U.S. Steel spilled nearly 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium — or 584 times the daily maximum allowed under state permitting laws — into the Burns Waterway in April 2017. The waterway flows directly into Lake Michigan, not far from an Indiana American Water Co. intake facility near Ogden Dunes.

A failed expansion joint in a wastewater line caused the spill, records show. Contaminated wastewater flowed into a concrete containment trench with "cracks, gaps and damaged areas" in its walls and base, which may have resulted in a release to underlying soil and groundwater, according to documents.

Because of this, IDEM ordered U.S. Steel to sample groundwater. Samples were collected in February and June, records show.

Hexavalent chromium concentrations in four wells exceeded IDEM's remediation closure guide screening level. However, U.S. Steel sought "no further action" status, arguing groundwater in the area is not used for drinking water.

When U.S. Steel conducted verification sampling in June, one of the wells — TLT-7 — was dry and no sample was collected. In September, IDEM directed U.S. Steel to retest that well.

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"Considering the highest concentration of hexavalent chromium from the first round of sampling came from TLT-7 (more than twice that of any other well), IDEM recommends USS obtain a representative verification sample from this location, before pursuing a no further action request for the unit," the department wrote in a Sept. 11 letter.

On Oct. 31, U.S. Steel informed IDEM it had resampled well TLT-7. The concentration of hexavalent chromium at the well in October was 14.7 parts per billion, more than 6.8 ppb observed during sampling in February, documents state.

U.S. Steel again requested no further action status, arguing regulations don't include screening levels for groundwater at industrial properties and a restrictive covenant prohibits the use of groundwater at the property for consumption, extraction and other purposes.

IDEM issued a draft five-year hazardous waste management permit renewal Nov. 2 for the Greenbelt II landfill, which has been used to dispose of hazardous waste generated on-site since 1993, IDEM said. Another landfill, Greenbelt I, owned by NS Environmental Trust, has been in post-closure since 1993.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which worked with IDEM and U.S. Steel on a proposed consent decree announced in April, did not respond to questions about groundwater contamination at the facility by press time Friday.

Are waterway, lake at risk?

IDEM has not made a decision on U.S. Steel's request for no further action status, a spokeswoman said.

U.S. Steel said it has a "strong record of working with IDEM to monitor and report environmental conditions at our Indiana facilities."

"On Oct. 31, U.S. Steel provided IDEM with documentation showing hexavalent chromium levels that were elevated earlier that month in the groundwater at one well located at our Midwest Plant. The substance was not detected at groundwater sampling conducted between the elevated well and the Burns Waterway. Furthermore, groundwater at the facility is not used or extracted for consumption," company spokeswoman Meghan Cox said.

IDEM said groundwater at the facility flows in a west to northwest direction, depending on the location. Groundwater is routinely evaluated in relation to the facility's current landfill permit, the department said.

"The hexavalent chromium concentration at well TLT-7 will likely attenuate to a level below the Great Lakes surface water standard of 11 ppb prior to reaching Burns Waterway or Lake Michigan," IDEM said.

The wells used for the investigation of the tin line trench included TLT-3, TLT-7, TLT-8 and TLT-9. They are "situated in a line from north to south, respectively, with TLT-3 being the closest to Lake Michigan," IDEM said.

"The wells are located to the west of the tin line trench and east of the wastewater treatment plant," the department said. 

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