Surfrider Foundation: More should be done now to deal with U.S. Steel spill

This aerial view of U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant shows the location of the Greenbelt II landfill, several wastewater outfalls on the Burns Waterway and the chrome treatment plant.

PORTAGE — Attorneys for the Surfrider Foundation say there's evidence a 2017 spill at U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant continues to threaten the health of anyone using Lake Michigan for recreation or drinking. They urged IDEM to require more of the steelmaker at a faster pace.

Attorneys at the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School submitted comments this week on a draft renewal permit the Indiana Department of Environmental Management issued for the hazardous waste landfill at U.S. Steel's Portage plant. The comment period for the draft permit ended Monday, and it was unclear when IDEM might make a decision on whether to approve it.

"Given the magnitude of the spill and the potential danger to lake users, we are deeply worried by the pace and robustness of IDEM's response," the attorneys wrote.

IDEM did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

U.S. Steel declined to comment for this story.

The state and federal governments in April announced a proposed consent decree requiring 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. A U.S. District Court judge recently granted Surfrider's request to intervene in the government's case. 

In the draft permit, IDEM noted it had directed U.S. Steel to resample at one of the on-site groundwater monitoring wells. The draft permit did not note U.S. Steel had notified IDEM on Oct. 31 that resampling at that well had again detected an elevated level of hexavalent chromium.

IDEM previously said preparing permits is a monthslong process and it needed time to fully review the Oct. 31 result.

Documents show U.S. Steel in April 2017 spilled hexavalent chromium not only into the Burns Waterway, which flows directly into Lake Michigan, but also into soil through a concrete trench that was in disrepair. The release into the soil was "quantified but undoubtedly substantial" and leached into the groundwater, Surfrider Foundation said.

IDEM directed U.S. Steel to test groundwater, and tests were conducted in February at several wells, including TLT-7, and again in October at well TLT-7.

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The February result for well TLT-7 was 6.8 parts per billion, or more than 20 times the screening level, Surfrider Foundation's comments said.

The October result was higher: 14.7 ppb, more than double the previous result and nearly 50 times the screening level.

"We are very concerned about the apparently increasing levels of hexavalent chromium in the groundwater at the Midwest Plant, particularly since the contaminated groundwater would seem to flow into Lake Michigan and the Burns Waterway," Surfrider's attorneys wrote. "Such a continued discharge of hexavalent chromium by U.S. Steel threatens Lake Michigan, which Surfrider members and others use for drinking water and immediately adjacent recreation."

The limited test results do not fully characterize the extent of the problem, Surfrider said.

IDEM should include specific corrective actions in the landfill permit, including requirements that U.S. Steel determine how much hexavalent chromium was released into groundwater, how much continues to be discharged to surface water from groundwater, how much soil has been contaminated, and how far the contamination has spread.

"These are important questions, and it will be necessary to answer them before an appropriate corrective measure can be planned and selected," Surfrider's attorneys wrote.

The foundation also urged IDEM to uphold its long-standing screening level for hexavalent chromium concentrations in groundwater and deny U.S. Steel's request for "no further action" status. 

The company is seeking the status, in part because it says groundwater in the area isn't used for consumption.

IDEM previously said it has not reached a decision on the request for no further action status. 

IDEM also has said the hexavalent chromium at well TLT-7 likely will attenuate to a level below the Great Lakes surface water standard of 11 ppb before reaching the Burns Waterway or Lake Michigan.

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