Lax protection of Lake Michigan is indefensible

SHARE Lax protection of Lake Michigan is indefensible
lakefront_3__050405_3074352_e1492205055211.jpg

Beaches near Portage, Indiana, were closed last spring after a hazardous chemical leaked into Lake Michigan. (File photo)

Follow @csteditorials

Safety measures for keep cancer-causing chemicals out of Lake Michigan ought to be virtually foolproof. The lake is not only the source of our drinking water, but also home to commercial fishing, shipping and a wide range of recreational activities.

But on Tuesday, a hazardous chemical — hexavalent chromium — started flowing into an Indiana tributary that in turn flows into Lake Michigan. Officials of the nearby Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore had to close three nearby beaches. Ogden Dunes, also nearby, closed its beach as well. A water treatment company had to shut its plant down until the water could be proved safe.

EDITORIAL

Follow @csteditorials

The cause? A failed expansion joint at U.S. Steel’s Portage, Indiana, facility, according to the company. That allowed wastewater carrying the chemical, which was the topic of the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich,” to flow into the wrong treatment plant and in turn into Burns Waterway just 100 yards from where the waterway flows into Lake Michigan.

How does something as mundane and predictable as a leaky pipe joint let a hazardous chemical get into our water? Where were the backup safety measures?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was right to condemn U.S. Steel’s “careless conduct” and call on the company to explain how it put so many people at risk. He also sought an assurance from the company that the leak wouldn’t be repeated.

After doing its own testing on water a mile from where the contaminated tributary flows into the lake, the Chicago Department of Water Management on Thursday found an elevated level of hexavalent chromium, but said it was well below federal safety standards. The department said the chemical has not reached city water intakes, and that city water remains safe to drink.

Also on Thursday, U.S. Steel said it had fixed the pipe, and the leak had stopped. But no one yet knows how much of the chemical flowed into the lake or how long the water must be monitored. More testing remains to be done. It’s also too soon to know what the long-term effect will be on the diverse flora in the national lakeshore.

At a time when environmental rules are under assault in Washington, Tuesday’s leak illustrates why federal environmental agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, must not be slashed, as the Trump administration wants to do. It is also a reminder that everyone from industry to local government has to be vigilant if we are to avoid future environmental disasters.

Tweets by @csteditorials

The Latest
“I’m turning 41 this month, and something’s got to give,” Williams wrote in an essay released Tuesday by Vogue magazine.
The man, 40, was riding the train about 3:30 a.m. in the 1500 block of North Clybourn Avenue when someone reached for his bag, Chicago police said.
Smith sees no way forward with GM Ryan Poles, though he left open the possibility of the McCaskey family stepping in to broker a solution.
The boy was attacked in the 9700 block of South Ewing Avenue Monday night.
A 17-year-old boy was shot in the chest, and an 18-year-old boy was grazed in the eye and shot in the leg.