PORTAGE — The public has only one chance to influence a consent decree proposed after U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant spilled toxic chromium into a Lake Michigan tributary in 2017.
A public comment period on the proposed settlement between the government and steelmaker remains open until June 6.
"The public has the opportunity to send the message that corporate polluters must obey the laws that protect public health, our waterways, and our national parks," said Colin Deverell, Midwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.
"This is the only chance to influence this deal, which could affect water quality for the community and the national park for years to come."
Save the Dunes and the Ogden Dunes Environmental Advisory Board last week announced they will host a public meeting to discuss the proposed settlement at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Ogden Dunes Firehouse, 111 Hillcrest Road.
"Our intention is to create a space where residents and visitors can discuss the proposed consent decree and consider what comments they may want to submit to the Department of Justice," Save the Dunes Executive Director Natalie Johnson said.
"We want to encourage our communities to express their thoughts and concerns about the proposed actions of the consent decree and begin to put them on paper to formally submit for review.”
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said it has declined to speak at public meetings while the consent decree is pending, but encouraged residents to submit comments.
Consent decree sparks disagreement
Among U.S. Steel's Clean Water Act violations is an April 11, 2017, spill of toxic hexavalent chromium into the Burns Waterway.
Under the proposed consent decree, the steelmaker agreed to improve the wastewater monitoring system, pay a civil penalty of more than $600,000, reimburse several government agencies and pay $240,500 in damages to the National Park Service.
Save the Dunes, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Hoosier Environmental Council and Ogden Dunes are among more than a dozen groups that asked in April for an extension of the comment period, because some key documents had not yet been released.
IDEM supported an extension of the comment period to June 6 and said a webpage initially was created under its air quality section because of a coding error. The proposed settlement and subsequent documents, along with information on how to submit comments, can be viewed at www.in.gov/idem/cleanwater/2538.htm.
Deverell, of the national parks association, said the proposed consent decree does not go far enough.
"The public deserves to know what and how U.S. Steel is doing to prevent future spills, to protect public health, and our national park beaches," he said.
"The agreement claims that the company has already taken steps to monitor and repair their failing facilities, but information has not been made available proving that these repairs have taken place.
"The public cannot make informed comments about what more is needed without knowing what U.S. Steel is doing and how they are collecting and reporting their progress to avoid future spills."
Many issues still unresolved
The Surfrider Foundation and Chicago, which each sued U.S. Steel in January but have agreed to put their lawsuits on hold for now, also have criticized the proposed settlement as unfair and inadequate.
Surfrider attorney Rob Weinstock, of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, said the consent decree is vague about what U.S. Steel is committing to do and leaves much to be decided by future proposals from the steelmaker.
"In fact, it could be after the consent decree is finalized, which is the only time the public can voice concerns and the only time a judge can review the consent decree to determine if it's in the public interest," Weinstock said.
"What we have seen so far continues to leave many questions unanswered and continues to raise many questions," he said.
When asked to comment on an April 23 letter from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to U.S. Steel regarding a Jan. 10 incident at the Midwest Plant, Weinstock said at first glance it appeared the steelmaker was still having trouble managing waste generated by its chromium electroplating line.
During the incident, precursor wastewater entered the final treatment system because of a leaking heat exchanger on the line, documents show.
"They say they've made positive changes to detection and monitoring. We think that is a wonderful result of our lawsuit and attention placed on U.S. Steel," Weinstock said.
"But again, we haven’t seen specific descriptions of these positive changes that they claim to have made, and we certainly don’t see a consent decree that turns those positive changes into real legal obligations to improve their process."
IDEM said there was no chromium detected in any discharge during the January incident, and it did not reach state waters.
U.S. Steel discovered the issue after beginning exploratory enhanced monitoring the week of Jan. 8, IDEM said.
"In February, U.S. Steel contacted IDEM’s Office of Land Quality to ensure proper disposal of sludge related to the issue identified in January," IDEM said.
"In short, U.S. Steel increased monitoring, identified an issue as a result, contacted EPA and IDEM wastewater staff, corrected the issue, avoided a discharge of material and contacted IDEM’s Office of Land Quality for proper disposal of sludge related to the material."
Wastewater monitoring reports for January, February and March have not been posted to IDEM's Virtual File Cabinet, but the department will provide copies on request.
April data is due to be submitted May 28. Reports must go through a review process before they are posted, IDEM said.