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UPDATE: Discharge from U.S. Steel plant fouling Lake Michigan tributary, Portage mayor says
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UPDATE: Discharge from U.S. Steel plant fouling Lake Michigan tributary, Portage mayor says

PORTAGE — Indiana Dunes National Park closed all of its beaches and Indiana American Water shut down an intake facility Sunday night after an orange substance appeared to spill from an outfall at the U.S. Steel Midwest plant.

Portage Mayor Sue Lynch said she began receiving calls about 5:50 p.m. about the unknown substance, which started to appear in the water near the plant's outfall and traveled along Burns Waterway toward Lake Michigan.

"Now it's all the way across the width of the channel into the open area, the mouth of the ditch," Lynch said about 6 p.m.

IDEM was aware of the reports and was investigating, a spokesman confirmed late Sunday.

Judge OKs consent decree for U.S. Steel in wake of toxic 2017 spill

Lynch said she wasn't sure what the substance could be, but an employee from the Portage Marina collected a sample for analysis.

Indiana Dunes National Park said it was closing the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk and all of its beaches until further notice out of an abundance of caution.

Indiana American Water said it shut down its Ogden Dunes treatment facility about 9:30 p.m. as a precaution.

Indiana American performs continuous real-time testing at the facility and had not seen any impact on "raw water parameters," according to a news release. The Ogden Dunes plant was expected to remain offline until additional data and water sampling show there is no threat to the company's water source.

Indiana American Water's Borman Park treatment facility in Gary remained open and had the capacity to meet its customers' water needs, the company said.

U.S. Steel has agreed to pay about $3 million in recent years for wastewater permit violations dating back to 2013, IDEM and court records show.

The apparent discharge Sunday fouled the waterway less than a month after a U.S. District Court judge granted the state and federal governments' request to approve a revised consent decree for U.S. Steel Midwest for wastewater violations.

U.S. Steel agreed to pay a $601,242 civil penalty and more than $625,000 to reimburse various agencies for costs associated with their response in April 2017 after the facility spilled 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium — or 584 times the daily maximum limit allowed under state permitting laws — into the Burns Waterway.

The spill led to the closure of several beaches along Lake Michigan and a shutdown at Indiana American Water's Ogden Dunes intake facility.

U.S. Steel also agreed as part of the consent decree to pay about $600,000 for a three-year water sampling program along Lake Michigan's shoreline.

The consent decree addressed the April 2017 spill and other Clean Water Act violations dating back to 2013. 

Ride along with Officer Jimmy Weller as he patrols the region's border of Lake Michigan as part of the Lake County Sheriff's Marine Unit. Video by Connor Burge. 

U.S. Steel said it voluntarily started to implement the consent decree in 2018. But the facility continued to violate its wastewater permit in 2018, 2019 and 2020, records show.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management adopted an agreed order in May that included a civil penalty of $950,000 for more than 25 permit violations at the facility from November 2018 to December 2020. 

IDEM agreed to allow U.S. Steel to pay $650,000 toward the penalty and make a $600,000 payment to the Dunes Learning Center instead of paying the remaining $300,000 civil penalty.

The company also agreed to pay fines for further violations, conduct enhanced outfall monitoring, develop a compliance plan, create and implement a preventative maintenance plan, and more. 

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