U.S. Steel spill

A closure sign hangs in April 2017 at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore after U.S. Steel spilled highly toxic hexavalent chromium into the nearby Burns Waterway.

PORTAGE — A program manager at the National Parks Conservation Association on Monday slammed U.S. Steel's wastewater plans for the Midwest Plant, saying they forced the EPA to make an 11th-hour decision.

The Environmental Protection Agency on May 30 sent a letter to U.S. Steel disapproving parts of the steelmaker’s wastewater plans, saying in part they lacked references to standard operational procedures that could help avoid or minimize impacts from spills.

U.S. Steel must submit a revised wastewater treatment operation and maintenance manual and preventive maintenance program plan within 30 days of receipt of EPA’s letter.

A public comment period on the proposed consent decree ends June 6.

“This letter really makes it clear that U.S. Steel’s plans aren’t good enough,” said Colin Deverell, Midwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

U.S. Steel's plans were so vague, EPA was right to reject parts of them less than a week before the end of a public comment period, he said.

“There absolutely needs to be an opportunity for all of us to weigh in,” Deverell said. “As written, these plans will not prevent a future spill.”

The proposed consent decree does not lay out whether the revised wastewater plan must be made public, nor does it provide for additional public comment opportunities, attorneys at the University of Chicago Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic said.

Anyone who already has submitted comments on the proposed consent decree will need to send additional comments if they want to specifically express concerns about the May 30 letter, Deverell said.

“If you’re an angler or a beachgoer or even somebody who hikes nearby, you have a stake in this and should be telling U.S. Steel they need to protect clean water,” he said.

U.S. Steel says it's revising plan

The Department of Justice on April 2 announced a proposed consent decree requiring U.S. Steel to improve environmental protections, pay a $600,000 civil penalty and reimburse several agencies for costs associated with their response to April 11, 2017, toxic chromium spill into a Lake Michigan tributary.

The spill forced Indiana American Water to shut down its Ogden Dunes drinking water intake for several days and prompted the closure of four beaches at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and one beach in Ogden Dunes.

In the May 30 letter, EPA directed U.S. Steel to include references to standard operating procedures in its wastewater manual to help avoid or minimize impacts of spills, list procedures for lab and field instruments used in monitoring, provide more detail on how operational and maintenance tasks will be assigned and recorded, and include information on systems components installed to date.

U.S. Steel said it would provide the information requested within the required time period.

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"Environmental stewardship is a core value at U. S. Steel," company spokeswoman Meghan Cox said. "We are in the process of providing supplemental information regarding our Midwest Facility's environmental programs."

EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management have each posted the May 30 letter at their websites for the proposed consent decree.

An IDEM spokesman declined further comment, saying his department had not yet had a chance to confer with EPA and the Department of Justice.

EPA did not respond Monday to a request for comment.

Now is only chance to weigh in

After the proposed settlement was announced in early April, several organizations immediately requested — and were granted with regulators’ support — an extension of the public comment period until June 6.

The National Parks Conservation Association and other groups called for the extension because key documents, including the wastewater plans, had not yet been submitted. U.S. Steel submitted the plan in mid-April.

The organizations’ early concerns about transparency appear to have been justified, Deverell said.

"The drip, drip, drip of records doesn't do a lot to instill confidence," he said.

Rob Weinstock, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School, said the comment period is the public's only chance to weigh in. The consent decree, once finalized, provides for no additional public input or transparency.

Weinstock and Mark Templeton, director of the law school's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, are representing the Surfrider Foundation in its lawsuit against U.S. Steel. Surfrider and Chicago, which also sued U.S. Steel, have each agreed to put their suits on hold during the consent decree process.

"We can't advise people on how to write their comments, but they certainly are well within their rights to request more time, more information and more opportunity for comment," Weinstock said. "The Department of Justice would be obliged to respond to those comments."

The National Parks Conservation Association and Save the Dunes have released tips on how to comment, including sample letters and instructions for submitting input.

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