A decision was handed down last week in the Surfrider Foundation’s litigation against the Great Lakes steel manufacturer U.S. Steel. Surfrider initially filed a lawsuit in 2018, after U.S. Steel’s Portage, Indiana facility spilled nearly 300 pounds of toxic hexavalent chromium into a waterway emptying directly into Lake Michigan near a popular surfing and recreation site and national park.
On August 30, 2021, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana issued a long awaited decision granting the governments’ motion to enter their proposed consent decree (a type of settlement agreement) with U.S. Steel. When the governments filed their initial complaint in 2018, at the same time they also proposed a consent decree for the court’s approval. Surfrider opposed that agreement, because we believe higher penalties were warranted and additional improvements could have been made. The consent decree was revised after a public comment period, with U.S. Steel agreeing to implement a local environmentally beneficial water quality monitoring project for the community negatively impacted by its pollution, and agreeing to improved public notification requirements in the event of future violations. While Surfrider continued calling for additional improvements to the consent decree, unfortunately last week the Court approved it. While this comes as disappointing news, particularly in light of continuing violations by U.S. Steel despite purported compliance with the consent decree’s technical requirements, the Court recognized that Surfrider’s efforts resulted in meaningful improvements to the consent decree as initially proposed in 2018. Additionally, the decision amounts to a federal court order penalizing U.S. Steel for past violation of the Clean Water Act and requiring U.S. Steel to comply with the its Clean Water Act permit moving forward.
Surfrider’s separate case, which has been consolidated with a similar lawsuit brought by the City of Chicago, is still pending, but has been stayed (or put on pause by the court) to date given the governments’ lawsuit. Surfrider remains committed to the case and is considering all options in light of this recent decision.
Photo courtesy of Mike Killion.