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Portage officials threaten to sue U.S. Steel over chemical spill

Portage officials threaten to sue U.S. Steel over chemical spill

U.S. Steel's Midwest Division

U.S. Steel's Midwest Division in Portage as seen from Portage Lakefront Park and Riverwalk in November 2016. The park is just across Burns Waterway from the factory.

PORTAGE — City officials here strongly condemned U.S. Steel's silence over a late October spill of hexavalent chromium into Burns Waterway — the second in a year.

The City Council approved a resolution Tuesday night demanding the steelmaker report any environmental spill or discharge to the city as it would to the Environmental Protection Agency or Indiana Department of Environmental Management. It also criticized President Donald Trump and his efforts to "destroy the EPA."

Officials also threatened legal action against the company.

"We were told this wouldn't happen again. We would told we would be informed. We weren't informed. We need to explore our options legally," said Councilman Collin Czilli, D-5th.

The steelmaker dumped more than 300 pounds of the cancer-causing agent into the waterway in April, shutting down water intake operations and beaches.

In June, after an appeal by the council, U.S. Steel representatives attended a city meeting, said City Council President Mark Oprisko, D-at-large, and indicated not only that this was a one-time incident, but that they would communicate better.

Then, in early November, it was learned the company dumped another 56 pounds of the chemical into the waterway.

Officials learned about the spill through a newspaper article.

"No body talked to the mayor, no one contacted us," Oprisko said. "To put pollutants in the waterway is ridiculous. Their responsibility is to contact us."

Both Czilli and Oprisko said they believed the only reason representatives attended the June meeting was to appease the council in light of a pending tax abatement request. Both doubted the company's sincerity.

Councilman John Cannon, R-4th, voted against the resolution, saying the resolution "doesn't do anything" by criticizing Trump and the EPA.

"U.S. Steel is committed to complying with all environmental standards, to ensuring the safety of our employees and our neighbors in the communities in which we live and operate, and to safeguarding our shared environment. We take that responsibility very seriously and recognize this as a critical aspect of our role as a member of each community in which we operate," U.S. Steel spokeswoman Meghan Cox said in a statement.

"We also take every incident seriously. We have worked with appropriate government agencies in the past as effectively as possible and continue those efforts as part of our work to continuously improve our environmental compliance processes. We have maintained open lines of communication with the Portage City Council and are working in cooperation with IDEM and USEPA to improve notification to stakeholders for spills," Cox said.

"With regard to the Oct. 26 operating excursion at our Midwest Plant, we want to reiterate the event did not pose any danger to water supply or human health, and we promptly communicated the issue to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM)," Cox said.

The discovery of a second spill came on the heels of the University of Chicago's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic notifying U.S. Steel of plans to sue the company for repeatedly violating the Clean Water Act at its Midwest plant for the last six years.

The law clinic is representing the Surfrider Foundation in the pending lawsuit.

City Council attorney Ken Elwood said he has been in contact with the law clinic and is setting up a meeting with clinic representatives to see if the city can join in the lawsuit.

Oprisko said a decision about any legal action by the city will be made next month.


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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly 40 years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.

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