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Surfers given OK to intervene in U.S. Steel settlement as IDEM again cites Portage facility

Police block an entrance the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk on Nov. 30 because of reports of a discharge into Burns Waterway from the U.S. Steel Midwest plant. 

PORTAGE — A federal magistrate judge granted Surfrider Foundation's request to intervene in the government's case against U.S. Steel on Thursday, just one day after IDEM cited the steelmaker for again violating its wastewater permit.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management gave U.S. Steel 30 days to explain what steps it took to correct a problem that caused a foamy discharge at one of its outfalls to the Burns Waterway, which flows directly into Lake Michigan.

A representative from IDEM observed the foamy discharge Nov. 28, according to a letter from IDEM to U.S. Steel. Within about five minutes of the IDEM representative's entry into the facility, the foaming stopped.

U.S. Steel previously said tests near the discharge site did not detect a highly toxic form of chromium spilled from the plant in April 2017 and showed other pollutants were below permitted levels.

Robert Weinstock, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic who represents Surfrider, said the cessation of the foaming after IDEM's arrival was consistent with reports from residents, who noted the foaming stopped shortly after a U.S. Steel employee noticed their presence.

"It sounds like several people identified something that sounds like manipulation of this discharge, which is troubling," he said.

Weinstock said Surfrider hoped to learn more about how much U.S. Steel and IDEM know about what was in the discharge. IDEM's letter was unclear about when a sample was taken and whether the foam had subsided at the time, he said.

"The bigger picture takeaway here is that this is a facility that is still unable to control its wastewater discharges," he said.

U.S. Steel claims to be following improved wastewater procedures required under a proposed settlement with the government, "yet, here we have this suspicious violation," Weinstock said.

Save the Dunes and the Porter County Izaak Walton League said in a statement the discharge revealed continued shortcomings in U.S. Steel's notification procedures.

"Even though it may not have posed a human health threat, it appears there was no immediate communication from U.S. Steel to its neighbors that a discharge had taken place," said Natalie Johnson, executive director of Save the Dunes. "This left neighboring communities and entities wondering whether or not the area was safe for recreational activities. We continue to call for more immediate and improved communication from U.S. Steel. We also demand accountability of the facility for continuous violations. This must come to an end."

Surfrider Foundation and Chicago sued U.S. Steel in January over an April 2017 spill of hexavalent chromium and numerous other Clean Water Act violations. In April, the U.S. Department of Justice filed 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.

U.S. District Magistrate Judge John Martin on Thursday granted their motion to intervene in the government's case.

Weinstock said he was pleased with the ruling and hoped to work with the government and U.S. Steel "to have a productive relationship."

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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.