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Lakefront park, Ogden Dunes beach remain closed as IDEM investigates U.S. Steel discharge

White foam is seen Nov. 30 at an outfall from the U.S. Steel Midwest plant in Portage.

PORTAGE — Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk and the beach at Ogden Dunes remained closed Monday following reports of a foamy, scummy discharge into the Burns Waterway from the U.S. Steel Midwest plant.

National Park Service staff investigating a tip Nov. 28 observed the white foamy discharge coming from the plant and heading out to Lake Michigan, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore spokesman Bruce Rowe said.

The National Park Service and Ogden Dunes said they planned to keep their lakefront properties closed while awaiting a report from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management regarding the substance discharged, he said. 

The U.S. Steel's Portage plant has been at the center of a controversy since April 2017, when it spilled nearly 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium — or 584 times the daily maximum limit allowed under state permitting laws — into the Burns Waterway.

U.S. Steel said Friday it was notified of the substance Thursday and jointly inspected the property with IDEM. U.S. Steel also said it notified the National Response Center.

"Samples from the site were taken and analyzed at an outside lab, where they were found to be within normal permitting limits," U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox said. "U.S. Steel will continue to work in collaboration with IDEM and other appropriate government entities."

The park service closed the lakefront to protect the health and safety of park visitors, Rowe said. 

IDEM confirmed Friday it was investigating. The department did not respond by press time Monday to a request for an update.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it had no involvement with the reported release. The agency confirmed the discharge was reported to the National Response Center and taken by EPA Wednesday, but said IDEM responded and met with U.S. Steel. 

Save the Dunes Council said last week it was contacted as early as Nov. 15 about a white, foamy discharge from the plant. The nonprofit urged residents who notice anything suspicious to immediately contact IDEM to make a report.

The Surfrider Foundation sued U.S. Steel in January over the April 2017 spill and numerous other Clean Water Act violations. A U.S. District Court judge merged the case with a lawsuit filed by Chicago, and both have been stayed. The foundation has asked for the stay to be lifted, but the judge has not yet issued a decision.

In April, the Department of Justice announced a proposed consent decree that would require U.S. Steel to pay about $600,000 in civil penalties and $630,000 in damages to several agencies for their response to the 2017 spill. Thousands of comments were submitted, but the government has not yet issued a final decision on the settlement.

Surfrider Foundation and Chicago also have asked a judge to let them intervene in the government's consent decree case against U.S. Steel, but a decision on their motion also remained pending.

IDEM is taking public comment on a draft permit renewal for a hazardous waste landfill at the facility through Dec. 17. If approved, the new permit would be effective for five years.

The Greenbelt II landfill has been in use since Oct. 15, 1993, and is used for the disposal of hazardous wastes generated on site, IDEM said. The landfill has a double liner system with leachate collection.

Recent groundwater tests at existing wells — required by the government because of the 2017 spill — show elevated levels of hexavalent chromium, records show.

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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.