11 • 13 • 2017

Surfrider Sends ‘Notice of Intent to Sue’ to Enforce Clean Water Act Protections in Lake Michigan

By Staley Prom

Yesterday, the Surfrider Foundation sent a ‘Notice of Intent to Sue’ letter to the U.S. Steel Corporation for repeated Clean Water Act violations at their Portage, Indiana facility. The U.S. Steel facility sits on the Lake Michigan shoreline, adjacent to a favorite spot among Chicago and northwest Indiana surfers and coastal recreationalists. 

Last April, U.S. Steel illegally spilled around 350 pounds of chromium – nearly 300 pounds of which were highly toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich — into a small waterway that feeds directly into Lake Michigan. This massive and dangerous discharge next door to the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, and a mere eight miles from the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, ultimately shut down public beaches from Gary to Michigan City for six days, closed public drinking water intakes, and endangered aquatic life.

Even before the April spill, surfers, including some Surfrider members who enjoy the Portage Lakefront, were some of the first to raise concerns about the steel plant next door. They were alarmed by the unseasonably bathwater-like temperatures near the U.S. Steel plant. Wanting to know more about the water they spent so much time in, Surfrider began to look into water quality along Northwest Indiana beaches, working with lawyers and students from the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. When news of the spill broke on April 11, that work took on a new level of urgency. 

Surfrider and the Clinic found that high temperatures and the hexavalent chromium spill were just a few links in a larger chain of other chemical spills, inadequate monitoring and reporting, and shoddy maintenance. News reports from the past several years already detail how U.S. Steel has delayed needed plant upgrades and laid off necessary maintenance workers in a deliberate strategy of cost-cutting at the expense of worker safety and the health of lakefront ecosystems. Through years of violations and poor maintenance, regulators at the state and federal levels took no meaningful action. 

State and federal authorities still have yet to take any enforcement action, even in the wake of the April spill and calls for action from residents, organizations, and elected officials. Under the federal Clean Water Act, Surfrider’s ‘Notice of Intent to Sue’ letter starts a 60-day notice period, after which Surfrider will be able to file a complaint in federal court and formally initiate a citizen suit against U.S. Steel. It is possible that the Indiana Department of Environmental Management or U.S. EPA will step up with their own enforcement action. If so, Surfrider will remain involved and vigilant to ensure these agencies hold U.S. Steel accountable for breaking the law and threatening our beaches and public safety. If these government regulators fail to act, Surfrider will proceed with our citizen suit. Should the regulators decide to act, Surfrider Foundation will nonetheless remain engaged and continue advocating for the health of our beautiful and ecologically important Great Lakes coastline.

“By initiating this matter, the Surfrider Foundation is seeking to protect the Great Lakes’ surfing tribe of this region and other water enthusiasts who enjoy recreating in the south end of Lake Michigan,” says Chicago Chapter Chair Mitch McNeil. “We want to bring about real and lasting positive change to the way U.S. Steel co-exists with the inhabitants of the community and recreational users of the lake. U.S. Steel and other polluters must realize they will be held accountable for ignoring the water quality rules that are in place.”

** UPDATE: On November 20, the city of Chicago sent a separate Notice of Intent to Sue U.S. Steel based on the company's repeated and ongoing Clean Water Act violations.  The city's Notice refers to and incorporates Surfrider Foundation's Notice, and the violations it raises, and empasizes the recent April and October spills of hexavalent chromium and chromium, respectively.  Surfrider is happy to see that Surfrider's Notice of Intent to Sue U.S. Steel prompted Chicago to take similar action to initiate a lawsuit.  U.S. Steel and other polluters must be held accountable, and we're glad to see Chicago agrees.  Chicago's involvement emphasizes how egregious and unacceptable U.S. Steel's repeated behavior and Clean Water Act violations are.

Surfrider Foundation is being generously represented by the University of Chicago Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic in this matter.

Photography by Mike Killion // @killertown