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Surfers say everyone should be concerned about Lake Michigan water quality

Surfers say everyone should be concerned about Lake Michigan water quality


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


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