Northwest Indiana should not have to settle for unchecked water pollution.
That’s the view of several surfers participating in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation that accuses U.S. Steel of polluting Lake Michigan.
Surfer Steve Haluska, 43, of Gary’s Miller section, said the chromium spill in October at U.S. Steel’s Midwest Facility — which wasn’t made public until Surfrider announced its intent to sue — contributed greatly to his decision to get involved. The facility sits at the mouth of the Burns Waterway along Lake Michigan in Portage.
“I surfed within a day or two of that spill at Portage, and we’re surfing right at the river mouth,” he said. “I fish right there, too.”
Attorneys filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation in January, after a mandatory 60-day notice period ended.
The foundation accuses the U.S. Steel Midwest Facility of repeatedly violating its wastewater permit and has asked a judge to order the company to stop all illegal discharges, come into compliance and pay a penalty.
A week later, attorneys for the City of Chicago filed a second lawsuit against the company seeking similar relief. Chicago also asked a judge at the U.S. District Court in Hammond to order the company to notify the city of any additional illegal discharges within one hour.
After the facility spilled nearly 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium into a Lake Michigan tributary in April, Chicago spent $75,000 to monitor a plume for five days as it drifted ever closer to one of the city's drinking water intakes, the lawsuit says. The city did not monitor after another spill in October, because it was never notified.
IDEM records show U.S. Steel initially sought confidential treatment for the second spill and failed to test for hexavalanet chromium — a more toxic form of the chemical — after a contractor discovered a discharge that was blue with visible solids.
U.S. Steel contends Surfrider's lawsuit is unnecessary because it has remediated the issues at the Portage plant. The company said it regrets the incidents and has made changed in consultation with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency.
IDEM has said it's working with its federal partners to negotiate an agreement with U.S. Steel that will be contained in a federal consent decree addressing the Clean Water Act violations.
‘It’s just not right’
Mitch McNeil, chairman of the the Surfrider Foundation's Chicago Chapter, said he began to surf the south end of Lake Michigan about 10 years ago and slowly got to know others who surf there.
"I started to hear the stories about people getting sick," he said. "I had some problems, too. I developed some skin rash symptoms a couple of times. It's partly my fault, because I didn't shower right away.
"I learned the hard way that you can't just let it fester on your skin, whatever it is."
McNeil connected with attorneys at the University of Chicago's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, which eventually agreed to take on the lawsuit. Before moving forward, McNeil had to take the issue to Surfrider Foundation's national leadership, he said.
The foundation works to protect coastal areas through campaigns and stewardship events.
Surfers Peter Matushek and Dave Benjamin, both of Homewood, initially were reluctant to join the lawsuit, they said.
Matushek, 38, grew up in the shadow of industry in South Chicago, and had come to accept pollution as part of daily life, he said.
Matushek and Haluska said everyone in the Region has a family member or at least knows someone who works in the mills. Industry has powered the Region’s economy, they said.
“I’m not a person who thinks all the industry has to shut down,” Matushek said.
However, he came to the conclusion that people shouldn’t have to get used to living with pollution.
“If they do something to our natural surroundings, they can pay repercussions for it,” he said.
Lake Michigan’s water needs to be used respectfully and responsibly, whether it’s for recreation or industry, Benjamin said.
Haluska, a telecommunications worker and union steward, said all of the Region’s industrial facilities should just do the right thing.
“It’s nothing but corporate greed and them trying to take shortcuts,” he said. “If they would just revamp the system, in the end that would create more jobs.”
Smelly water, health ailments
About five years ago, Matushek contracted a urinary tract infection, which is rare in men, after surfing.
A second urinary tract infection two years ago developed into a massive kidney infection and led to sepsis, he said.
He spent a week in a hospital, and it took about three months to make a full recovery. Matushek, a high school math teach in Midlothian, was sick for much of his summer break that year.
“It was never narrowed down that I had got this infection from surfing Lake Michigan,” he said of his conversations with doctors at the time. “It’s a pretty uncommon thing for a man to get a urinary tract infection that leads to such a serious infection.
“That was kind of a strange thing,” he said. “Do I personally think it was from that? Yeah. I think both the times I got sick, there was heavy rain beforehand, and I was surfing Portage.”
The worst water pollution is at Portage, he said.
“Portage just smells the most. The water is just very pungent," he said. "On certain days, it’s clear blue. On other days, it’s just disgusting. I think it has to do with the outflow.”
Haluska, Benjamin and surfer Amanda Bye, 37, of Chicago, said they’ve never gotten sick after surfing but they’ve seen water pollution first-hand.
Benjamin, who used to surf at Portage often, said some days the water smells worse than an ashtray, a description included in Surfrider’s lawsuit.
“It smells like a dirty cat litter box that hasn’t been cleaned in over a month,” Benjamin said. “It’s a heavy, toxic smell of ammonia.”
The smell isn’t always noticeable when you first get in the water, he said.
“It would be noticeable after surfing, when you get in the car and you’re changing,” he said. “You’re enclosed in the car … and you smell it really bad.”
Bye said she surfed at Portage once.
“When you get out, you smell like toxic gasoline-type stuff, and it’s like, ‘That can’t be good,’ ” she said.
Bye said she’s decided not to surf Lake Michigan’s south end anymore.
“My experience in Whiting and Portage – knowing what’s in there – I can’t in good conscience do that to my body. I can’t expose myself to those chemicals,” she said.
'A direct expression of who we are'
Each of the surfers expressed a deep respect and love for Lake Michigan.
“It’s so many things to me,” Haluska said. “It’s my playground. It’s my little mini oasis vacation getaway. It’s just a great place to go clear your mind and take in a sunset or even a sunrise.”
Haluska rented a lakefront home for a time, and described seeing “Mother Nature’s beautiful canvas of art and colors” as the sun rose each morning.
Benjamin described the lake as “natural beauty.”
“For most people, it’s like a secret gem,” he said.
Bye said surfing has opened her eyes to not only water pollution, but also trash.
“In the summer, after it rains, they have those warnings about E. coli pollution because of the runoff,” she said. “It’s really gotten me to start thinking more about how we depend on the Great Lakes."
Matushek said he never would have thought to bring the lawsuit.
“You have surfers from Chicago who didn’t grow up down here, and they’re kind of appalled by what they see,” he said. “A lot of surfers who are local guys just kind of got used to it, but at the same time we realize it’s terrible for us.”
Surfers may be the first to notice water pollution, but anyone who drinks Lake Michigan water is on the frontlines, too, he said.
“It’s even more surprising to me that it takes a small group of surfers and surfriders to bring this lawsuit,” he said.
Surfers involved in lawsuit against steel company share a love of Lake Michigan
‘A surf junkie ever since’
Steve Haluska first tried boogie boarding at age 16 during a visit to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Several weeks after he returned home to Lowell, he saw the move “Point Break.”
“I loved that movie so much,” said Haluska, 43, now of Gary’s Miller section. “That night I had one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever experienced. … I was surfing.”
Haluska began boogie boarding on Lake Michigan about 17 years ago and was among the first customers at Third Coast Surf Shop’s location in New Buffalo, Michigan.
“I was there the first day, and I bought my first surf board,” he said. “I’ve been a surf junkie ever since.”
The best conditions for surfing Lake Michigan often occur during colder months, but surfing during the summer is possible, he said.
“It really depends on Mother Nature,” he said. “If there’s waves, I kinda put everything else off and go chase them if possible.”
Growing up, Haluska enjoyed trips to the beach while visiting his grandmother in Lake Station and played in beach volleyball tournaments in Lowell.
“Once I got my driver’s license, I was at the beach at least four days a week,” he said.
He’s also an avid fisherman and waterfowl hunter and sometimes goes fishing near the U.S. Steel Midwest Facility.
Lake Michigan is his playground, his mini oasis vacation getaway, he said. He surfs along Indiana's lakeshore whenever he can.
“All of my biggest passions in life are surrounded by water,” he said. “I’ve always been drawn to water.”
‘That was all I needed’
Peter Matushek loved the idea of surfing as a kid.
Growing up in South Chicago, he spent a lot of time on Lake Michigan.
His mother thought of Whiting as “an elite suburb” and often took the family to a Dairy Queen there, he said.
Still, Matushek, 38, of Homewood, never saw himself moving to an oceanfront community to pursue surfing, because of his family.
In 2008, he read a Chicago Tribune story about people who surf Lake Michigan.
The story mentioned Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Michigan, so Matushek called and asked when the next surf would be.
The following weekend, Third Coast staff told him.
“They have instructions and learn-how-to-surf classes, so I signed up right away,” he said. “Just talking to the guys, the how-to, that was it. That was all I needed.”
He may visit Lake Michigan during the summer with his family, but his draw to the lake is when the weather starts turning and the surf season starts, he said. Despite suffering several illnesses and experiencing polluted waters, Matushek continues to surf primarily in Indiana.
He has a deep respect for the lake, he said.
“I told my wife that I want to have my ashes spread in Lake Michigan,” he said. “So if you wanted to go out early one morning and visit with me, that’s where I am.”
Teaching others to swim safely
As Dave Benjamin drove down the Dan Ryan Expressway during a snowstorm one night in 2008, he saw an old station wagon with a surf board on top of it and a bumper sticker that said “Third Coast Surf Shop.”
Benjamin — who learned to boogie board while living in Huntinton Beach, California — always had loved the beach and been interested in surfing. When he arrived home, he immediately looked up Third Coast online.
“The funny thing was, I had some work to do in New Buffalo, so I checked out the shop,” he said. “That’s when I got hooked. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to figure this out.’”
Benjamin, 48, of Homewood, said he didn’t fully understand the wind on Lake Michigan, so he went to all the wrong beaches the first year.
With some help from his brother-in-law, he began to understand how wind affects the waves and found other surfers, he said.
“It kind of became an addiction early on, but I’m more selective now," he said. "Now I have a work-first policy.”
Benjamin’s life changed forever Dec. 26, 2010, when he had a nonfatal drowning accident.
He had a bad wipe out, fell on his back and had the wind knocked out of him. Waves pushed him to the bottom for about two minutes, before he could get back to the surface and cough up the water. It took him another 38 minutes to float and backstroke back to the shore.
Benjamin decided he wanted to teach others about water safety and drowning prevention, and offered his first surfboard rescue class in June 2011. A wide audience of police officers, firefighters, everyday people and surfers showed up, and the project grew.
He now serves as an executive director at the nonprofit Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, which has given 487 presentations since 2011. About 300 more presentations are scheduled this year, with 100 of those in Northwest Indiana, he said.
“Unfortunately, water safety and drowning survival is not common sense," he said. "It’s a silent epidemic that gets very little proactive funding or attention.”
Benjamin said surfing has changed his appreciation of Lake Michigan, and he surfs mostly in Indiana despite the sometimes smelly waters.
“For 38 years of my life, I only enjoyed Lake Michigan in June, July and August,” he said. “Now I enjoy it 12 months of the year.”
'I see the abuses that happen'
Amanda Bye took a surfing lesson in 2014 while visiting Hawaii on a work trip.
"I was like, 'Whoa, I've got to do this more often,'" she said.
A Chicago resident, Bye knew the waves on Lake Michigan had to be big enough to surf, so she did some research.
“I first started by just kind of showing up to the lakeshore and looking for people with boards,” she said.
Third Coast Surf Shop in Michigan came up in an online search.
“It all kind of fell into place,” she said. “You gotta have gear to surf the lakes.”
Bye, 37, can’t sport an “ice beard” like the guys, but they all wear wet suits. Cold water isn’t really an issue, she said.
“The tech for wetsuits has gotten so good. You stay pretty toasty on the inside,” she said. “As long as you keep moving, the suits do their job. Honestly, it’s more of the wind that makes it cold than the water."
Bye said she's always had respect for water, whether it be an ocean or the lakes. But surfing has opened her eyes to something else.
“Just being out there more, I see the abuses that happen,” she said.
There’s the pollution, but also the trash. In the summer, when she likes to stand-up paddleboard, there are E. coli warnings after runoff from heavy rains wash into the lake. She decided not to surf in Indiana anymore, because of the health risks, she said.
“I’m accountable and responsible for making sure that I don’t leave anything behind as far as trash,” she said. “It’s small-scale compared to a steel mill, but that is my responsibility to make sure trash goes where it needs to go.”