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U.S. Steel report says foam didn't contain regulated pollutants; IDEM to issue report next week

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

PORTAGE — U.S. Steel says in a letter released Tuesday by IDEM that tests near where its Midwest facility discharged a foamy substance last week did not detect a highly toxic form of chromium and showed other pollutants were below permitted levels.

An attorney for the Surfrider Foundation, which sued U.S. Steel this year over numerous Clean Water Act violations, said U.S. Steel's letter is unclear on several important details, including how long the issue has existed and how the Midwest facility has reacted.

A resident told Save the Dunes Council a white foamy discharge was observed as early as Nov. 15, but it was unclear if it was reported to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

The letter from U.S. Steel to IDEM also doesn't provide any detail about the cause of the problem, said Robert Weinstock, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic.

"We look forward to IDEM's inspection report and hope to figure out how this relates to the broader and ongoing historical wastewater management failures at the facility," he said.

IDEM said it plans to issue its own report about the Nov. 28 discharge early next week. 

"The assertions in U.S. Steel's attached report are consistent with the event and U.S. Steel's interactions with IDEM's inspection and emergency response staff," an IDEM spokeswoman said.

In the letter, which U.S. Steel was required to submit within five days of the incident, the company says the foam from one of its outfalls on the Burns Waterway "was found to be due to insufficient defoamer addition, and was not attributable to any pollutant regulated under the NPDES permit, including chromium."

A contractor for U.S. Steel attempted to grab a sample after the company first became aware of the discharge, but "by the time personnel were able to access the waterway for sampling, the foam was no longer present in the receiving stream," the letter says.

The contractor took samples at that outfall and another where there was no visible indication of foaming. Sampling results showed no hexavalent chromium was detected and other pollutants were below permitted levels, the letter says.

U.S. Steel made notification to the National Response Center at 4:15 p.m. Nov. 28, more than two hours after first learning of the discharge, the letter said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the discharge was reported to the National Response Center Wednesday, but IDEM responded and met with U.S. Steel. EPA is assisting IDEM in the investigation, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

U.S. Steel began an investigation into the cause of the foam, but no determinations were noted in the letter. The facility's chrome treatment and final treatment plants were operating normally, the letter says.

The National Park Service said Tuesday it reopened the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which is on the east side of the Burns Waterway. The waterway flows into Lake Michigan.

"This decision is based on preliminary test results that did not indicate any known hazardous substances in the discharge that first appeared in the Burns Waterway on Nov. 28," park spokesman Bruce Rowe said. "That discharge has now ended."

The park service closed the property Nov. 30 as a precaution to protect the health and safety of park visitors until the nature of the discharge could be determined, 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.

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, including cadmium, chromium, lead, nickel, silver and cyanide, 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 in the groundwater, records show.

Questions or comments on the draft permit renewal should be directed to Robert Marshall, of IDEM's Office of Land Quality, at 317-232-4534 or rmarshal@idem.in.gov.

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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.