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U.S. Steel to pay $600,000 penalty, reimburse agencies for response to toxic chromium spill

A sign from the National Park Service shows the walkway in Portage's Lakefront Park along the water is closed April 12, 2017, due to a chemical spill from U.S. Steel.

HAMMOND — U.S. Steel has agreed to improve the wastewater monitoring system at its Midwest Plant in Portage, pay a civil penalty of more than $600,000, reimburse several government agencies and pay $240,500 in damages to the National Park Service for spilling toxic chromium into a Lake Michigan tributary nearly one year ago.

After the spill April 11, 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management found numerous other violations during inspections at the plant, according to a consent decree filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Hammond by attorneys for the U.S. and Indiana.  

The wastewater spilled contained hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic form of chromium made famous by the biographical film "Erin Brokovich." In response, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore closed four beaches for nearly a week, Indiana American Water shut down its intake at Ogden Dunes and Chicago spent $75,000 to monitor a plume of hexavalent chromium for five days as it drifted ever closer to one of the city's drinking water intakes.

Officials with EPA, IDEM, the Department of Justice, the Indiana attorney general's office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration praised the proposed settlement in a news release issued by the DOJ. 

Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Paul Labovitz said his agency was thankful the spill didn't occur during the busy beach season.

"It is our hope that our neighbors in industry learned some valuable lessons from the USS chromium spill, and will be more vigilant to prevent such occurrences that negatively impact the quality of life in Northwest Indiana," Labovitz said.

Other lawsuits ongoing

The Surfrider Foundation and Chicago in January filed separate lawsuits against U.S. Steel because of the spill. U.S. District Magistrate Judge Andrew Rodovich on March 1 granted U.S. Steel's motion to consolidate the cases. 

“We're encouraged regulators are finally doing something, though we can't speak to the adequacy of that action until we have a chance to review the proposed consent decree itself," said Mark Templeton, attorney for the Surfrider Foundation and director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago.

The law clinic will continue to advocate for the Surfrider Foundation and others who rely on Lake Michigan through its case and the government actions announced Monday. Attorneys for Surfrider and Chicago on March 23 filed a document outlining a detailed plan for document requests and other pre-trial discovery.

Surfrider Foundation's litigation appeared to have contributed to the government actions announced Monday, Templeton said.

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Company faces deadlines

According to the proposed consent decree, U.S. Steel agreed to reimburse EPA $350,000 and the National Park Service $12,500 for their response costs. The steelmaker also will reimburse the NOAA $27,500 for its work assessing natural resource damages following the spill.

The National Park Service intends to use the $240,500 in damages paid by U.S. Steel to fund future projects around the national lakeshore, according to the Department of Justice.

  U.S. Steel already has repaired and replaced wastewater treatment equipment, according to the proposed consent decree.

The company must develop a comprehensive wastewater operation and maintenance plan and submit it to EPA and IDEM no later than April 15. U.S. Steel also must complete further repairs to a concrete containment trench no later than June 15, documents state.

In a news release, the Department of Justice said U.S. Steel experienced a wastewater discharge of a less toxic form of chromium in October. 

Documents on file with IDEM show U.S. Steel didn't test the discharge — described as blue with visible solids — discovered in October to determine if it contained hexavalent chromium.

"Visual evidence of operational deficiencies, such as discolored effluent or solids leaving the facility or a total chromium result in excess of the daily maximum permit limit should lead the facility to monitor for hexavalent chromium to determine the extent of the impact, even if the on-site personnel believe there will be none or little," an IDEM inspection summary/noncompliance letter said. 

U.S. Steel agreed to sample daily for total and hexavalent chromium, according to the proposed consent decree.

The settlement is subject to a 30-day public comment period following notification in the Federal Register and final approval by the court. To view the consent decree or to submit a comment, visit www.justice.gov/enrd/Consent_Decrees.html.

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