Legal, Water Quality
November 20 2019

US Steel Update: Federal, State Agencies Propose Weak Action to Address Spills in Lake Michigan

by Sarah Damron

Photo credit: Mike Killion 

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion to enter a revised consent decree to remedy the April 2017 spill of 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium from U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant in Portage, Indiana. Despite acknowledgement of additional spills from this same facility that have occurred in the time since 2017, which clearly display that the problems have not been remedied, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management espouse that the revised consent decree sufficiently mitigates the impact of the spill and would prevent future spills. 

Although Surfrider is still in the process of reviewing the governments’ extensive filing in the case yesterday, our initial review causes us to be concerned that the revised proposed consent decree does not sufficiently address the underlying causes of the illegal and harmful discharges. In the proposed revised consent decree, the governments do not identify any additional improvements to the technical or operational requirements. Surfrider is also extremely disappointed that the governments did not impose a higher penalty on U.S. Steel to reflect the severity of the violations and to deter future misconduct by U.S. Steel and other facilities in Northwest Indiana. 

This action is the latest in the litigation against U.S. Steel for illegally discharging the massive amount of hexavalent chromium in violation of its permit and the Clean Water Act. The Surfrider Foundation sued U.S. Steel in January 2018 for this violation and repeated permit violations in the five years preceding the litigation, for the purpose of protecting the health of surfers and other recreators at and near the Indiana Dunes National Park and in Lake Michigan more generally. In April 2018, the United States and State of Indiana filed litigation against U.S. Steel for this spill as well, and Surfrider filed to intervene in that proceeding to defend our interests. The consent decree is a compilation of actions that, if entered into, must be taken by the violator to remedy the violation, and is proposed by the United States and State of Indiana as a settlement of their litigation.

As noted in a October 14, 2019 letter from City of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen to the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. EPA, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, U. S. Steel’s Midwestern Plant has repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act during 2019 despite its statements to the governments that it is already in compliance with the initial proposed consent decree. Even as recently as October 30, 2019, the plant released hexavalent chromium above the facility’s permitted levels into the same waterway as the April 2017 discharge. These events have, at various times, led to the closure of portions of the Indiana Dunes National Park and Ogden Dunes Beach and the temporary shutdown of a water treatment facility, and has caused Indiana Department of Environmental Management in various inspection reports to note the creation of “unsatisfactory” conditions in the very same waterway as the April 2017 hexavalent chromium discharge, rate U. S. Steel’s operation and maintenance as “unsatisfactory,” and criticize U. S. Steel for failure to correct prior statements and for making statements to the public that “appeared to be misleading."

Surfrider will continue to carefully review the governments' filings to make a determination about how to proceed.