As cyanide and ammonia flowed down the east branch of the Little Calumet River in mid-August toward the Burns Waterway and Lake Michigan, boaters swam in the waterway, surfers rode the waves near its mouth and grandparents swam with their grandkids in the lake.
It wasn’t until days later that any of them learned they might have been exposed to toxic chemicals.
The releases from two outfalls at ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor the week of Aug. 11 killed about 3,000 fish and kept visitors away from Indiana's newly designated Indiana Dunes National Park for more than a week.
The event left one boater wondering if the releases were to blame for the breathing problems he subsequently experienced, according to a notice of intent to sue recently served to ArcelorMittal by Dogan & Dogan. The law firm is representing more than 70 clients.
ArcelorMittal said monitoring showed cyanide levels in the river and at Lake Michigan beaches did not pose a threat to human health, but one Region surfer said he wondered if unusual lesions on his arms — just above where his wetsuit ends — were caused by possible exposure to the chemicals Aug. 15.
Indiana American Water reduced the flow at its Ogden Dunes intake facility as a precaution during the ArcelorMittal release.
The water company shut down its intake Aug. 20, after U.S. Steel said a discoloration had been observed at one of the outfalls from its Midwest Plant on the Burns Waterway. It was one of four oil sheens reported at the facility this year.
"The concern of the Region is these incidents occur, and we're still using the water resources when there's danger," said Aaron Corn, associate attorney at the Hoosier Environmental Council. "There was cyanide and ammonia in the water at the same time, and people were using those resources, and fish were dying."
It's not the first time a toxic chemical released into a Lake Michigan tributary has forced the shutdown of the Ogden Dunes water intake, which serves about 80,000 customers in its Northwest Indiana District.
U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant in Portage 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 2017.
The 2017 release led to a shutdown of the water intake and the temporary closure of a number of local beaches. The water at the Portage Lakefront at Indiana Dunes National Park and the Ogden Dunes beach were closed after the ArcelorMittal release.
Months after the April 2017 spill, U.S. Steel Midwest discharged 56.7 pounds of total chromium into the waterway and failed to monitor for hexavalent chromium, the most toxic form of the chemical. U.S. Steel later asked the Indiana Department of Environmental Management that it "be afforded confidential treatment under all applicable statutes."
Since then, U.S. Steel has agreed to pay more than $840,000 in penalties and damages as part of a proposed consent decree with the government, which has yet to be finalized.
The company also is facing Clean Water Act lawsuits filed by the Surfrider Foundation and Chicago, and it reported to IDEM four times this year it violated narrative water quality standards under its wastewater permit due to an oil sheen visible at the same outfall involved in the 2017 releases.
Despite intense public scrutiny of U.S. Steel Midwest — evidenced by some 2,700 comments on its proposed consent decree — the company defied a request from IDEM in May to notify downstream users of the oil sheen near its outfall, records show. It issued a public statement May 9, later telling IDEM the statement was "sufficient" and downstream notification wasn't necessary.
Neither U.S. Steel nor IDEM issued public statements when a subsequent oil sheen was observed Aug. 8. The company issued statements Aug. 20 and Sept. 20.
‘The system is broken’
U.S. Steel said the oil sheens May 9, Aug. 8, Aug. 20 and Sept. 6 at the Midwest Plant did not result in a risk of harm to the public or the environment and did not exceed permitted levels. Records show IDEM considers an oil sheen a violation of narrative water quality standards, which prohibit industries from creating a situation that fouls the water.
U.S. Steel said it notified IDEM of each event.
"Safety and environmental stewardship are our top priorities. We take our reporting responsibilities very seriously, and are committed to notifying the public even when it is out of an abundance of caution," a spokeswoman said. "We continue to work with the agency on these matters and to improve our internal processes.”
Despite the company's statements there was no risk of harm, Indiana American shut down its Ogden Dunes intake facility during the Aug. 20 and Sept. 6 events. The water company was not notified of the May 9 and Aug. 8 events, spokesman Joseph Loughmiller said.
The shutdowns required the company to increase flow at its Borman Park facility in Gary and resulted in an estimated $18,500 in costs, which included water sampling and analysis, doubling up on plant operators, staff time for other employees and additional chemical expenses.
Natalie Johnson, executive director of Save the Dunes, said recent events at the two steel facilities and the lack of timely public notification show the system is broken.
"We have to acknowledge that things are not working," she said. "It's not working anymore, and we have to revisit."
Representatives from industry, government and the public need to collaborate and suggest some meaningful solutions, she said.
Johnson and members of other environmental groups talked Friday with IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott during a quarterly meeting in Indianapolis.
Permitted industries — not IDEM — are responsible for notifying downstream users and the public of releases from their facilities, she said.
However, Pigott made a personal commitment to immediately issue an alert when there is a significant indication of damage to a local waterway, said Johnson and Jeanette Neagu, of the League of Women Voters’ Indiana and Lake Michigan Region chapters.
"Those notifications will go out even though he doesn't know the source of the damage," Neagu said.
The groups also told Pigott IDEM's lack of capacity in Northwest Indiana is a grave concern. He agreed, Johnson said.
Corn, the attorney at the Hoosier Environmental Council, said part of the problem is that IDEM has allowed for less frequent monitoring at facilities with aging equipment.
A recent permit modification allowed ArcelorMittal to reduce the frequency of its wastewater monitoring. The release may have been discovered sooner if the company had been sampling at previously required intervals, he said.
The problems at ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel Midwest are particularly concerning because both facilities have recently been parties to consent decrees, he said.
ArcelorMittal agreed in May to pay a $5 million penalty for violating air permit limits at its East Chicago, Burns Harbor and Cleveland mills. The government asked a U.S. District Court judge in August to finalize the consent decree.
"That tells us that these are facilities that are exceeding their regulatory limits enough to require a consent decree," Corn said. "We should be subjecting those facilities to heavy scrutiny in terms of reporting requirements and then engaging in more regular enforcement actions."
The Clean Water Act authorizes penalties of up to $50,000 per day per violation, said Rob Weinstock, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic.
When IDEM fines companies like ArcelorMittal and U.S. Steel, the amounts can be as low as $8,000, he said.
"I find it laughable that anyone would think an $8,000 penalty to a multibillion-dollar conglomerate would make much of a difference to that company to force it to correct its behavior," he said.
Jim Sweeney, vice president of the Porter County Chapter of the Izaak Walton League, said many of his organization’s members have worked in heavy industry and "know how this stuff works."
"This isn't 1920," he said. "This is 2020. We need to keep this nasty stuff out of our water."
Region residents don't have to choose between jobs and a clean environment, he said. "We can have both."
Pattern of deficiencies
Those reviewing IDEM inspection summary reports often are left to read between the lines because inspectors strive to state the facts and avoid drawing conclusions, said Weinstock, the University of Chicago Law School attorney representing the Surfrider Foundation.
That's not the case with IDEM reports regarding the oil sheens observed May 9 and Aug. 8 and 20 at U.S. Steel Midwest, he said.
"What's remarkable is the inspectors cannot avoid drawing stark conclusions," Weinstock said.
The reports show U.S. Steel's operations continue to be deficient in areas the government's proposed consent decree was crafted to address, he said.
IDEM inspectors noted deficiencies such as data from the problematic chrome line being recorded on paper that could easily get wet, an operation plan that needed to be revised or rewritten, and U.S. Steel employees who didn't know the capacity of the treatment facility where they worked.
For the second time in two years, IDEM inspectors cited U.S. Steel for failing to immediately accelerate sampling when a problem was first observed.
"The accelerated sampling did not start until after the solids had subsided in the afternoon, which missed the majority of the event," the report on the May 9 event says. "Due to this, the true extent of the event could not be determined."
The department cited the company for a similar problem after the October 2017 chromium release.
"Not only do I see a pattern, but IDEM inspectors see a pattern. That's why it's important to see them draw that parallel between May and October 2017," Weinstock said. "IDEM inspectors are noting a pattern that goes back to 2017 and has continued since."
While oil may not pose as serious of a health threat as cyanide or hexavalent chromium, it's regulated for a reason, environmental groups said.
A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said the company immediately investigated the oil sheens on all four dates and implemented corrective actions ranging from employee education to repairs to prevent reoccurrence.
"We also conduct rigorous water testing at the facility multiple times daily to ensure proper operation of the wastewater treatment plants as well as compliance with our discharge permits," the company said. "We are taking additional actions to ensure issues are contained within our facility, including the installation of a permanent boom at the outfall. A boom is a floating barrier which will contain materials, such as oil, if needed."
During the May 9 inspection, U.S. Steel initially told IDEM it thought the problem was caused by a release of pickle liquor from a heat exchanger.
When IDEM inspectors returned to the facility May 14, they asked about a letter U.S. Steel was required to submit regarding the cause of the release and were told it was in the mail. They returned to their office and reviewed the letter, learning for the first time that U.S. Steel had reached a different conclusion than initially revealed.
The company now said the May 9 sheen was caused by a failed seal of a sulfuric acid tank on the tin line. U.S. Steel estimated 260 to 300 gallons of sulfuric acid was discharged May 9, and about 30 gallons of pickle liquor were lost into the final treatment plant.
When IDEM asked why U.S. Steel didn’t inform inspectors of the change earlier, U.S. Steel replied it "wanted to conclude its investigation to ensure correction information was gathered."
"Withholding pertinent information over the course of an investigation is an unacceptable practice," IDEM's report states.
Weinstock said the exchange is one of the most galling parts of the inspection reports.
"What I am seeing as I read these documents is IDEM inspectors who are reporting that they are being actively misled by U.S. Steel," he said. "The question now is what will IDEM's leadership and the U.S. EPA do about it?" he said.
IDEM referred U.S. Steel for enforcement following the May 9 incident and sent the company a noncompliance letter regarding oil sheens observed in August.
However, the department said Friday those actions will not affect consent decree proceedings.
U.S. Steel has said in court records that it anticipates an amended consent decree will be submitted to the court for final approval.
Surfrider and Chicago were granted permission to intervene in the case and will have a right to object if an amended consent decree is submitted, Weinstock said.
ArcelorMittal details timeline
Environmental groups said many questions remain regarding the releases at ArcelorMittal, including when the company first became aware of a problem and how long it takes for cyanide and ammonia to dissipate in the environment.
ArcelorMittal said in a statement Friday the releases were caused by a loss of power Aug. 11 at a pump station for the blast furnace process water recycle system.
Based on operating history at the station, staff did not think the failures would lead to concerns about cyanide, a spokesman said.
The first water sampling date for cyanide after the failures was Aug. 13. A 24-hour composite sample was sent to a certified lab Aug. 14, and the amount of cyanide was calculated Aug. 15, ArcelorMittal said.
"Those results alerted ArcelorMittal that there was a cyanide concern," the spokesman said.
The company notified IDEM of the results that morning and submitted a written notification the same day. The cause of the release was disclosed Aug. 16, he said.
ArcelorMittal continues to sample daily and communicate the results to IDEM, the U.S. Coast Guard and the National Park Service. The facility has been fully compliant with its permit since Aug. 17, the spokesman said.
"This was a unique and unfortunate event which the company continues to investigate in coordination with regulatory authorities to determine the root cause and implement measures to prevent future occurrences," the company said. "While the company is unable to comment on potential litigation, we remain focused on maintaining compliance and understanding the root cause so that we can implement appropriate measures to prevent future occurrences."
ArcelorMittal initially began conducting downstream sampling every quarter mile for 2.5 miles along the Little Calumet River. The company later expanded the sampling area to include the Lake Michigan shore from Porter Beach to the western part of West Beach.
The regulatory agencies that responded to the release "established a threshold concentration of 0.200 mg/L for free cyanide" to assess monitoring data for water in the east branch of the Little Calumet, the company said. The value is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's maximum contaminant level for drinking water.
“Water monitoring by ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor and the agencies indicate that free cyanide concentrations in the east branch of the Little Calumet River or at Lake Michigan beaches did not come close to approaching the threshold concentration value," the company said.
Environmental groups said they hope IDEM's inspection summary report will answer many of their outstanding questions.
IDEM said its investigation is ongoing and the report is not yet available.
ArcelorMittal addressed the sheen observed in Burns Harbor Aug. 14 and 20 in a letter to IDEM.
Though initially reported as oil, "analytical of samples indicated no oil or grease in samples taken of the sheen or the outfall during the incidents," the letter states.
The Aug. 14 sheen was contained within the harbor, and the substance observed Aug. 20 was thought to be residual from the previous event.
ArcelorMittal notified the National Response Center and its emergency response staff in both cases, IDEM said.