Toxic spills continue to pollute Lake Michigan while government watchdogs snooze

On Aug. 11, a spill of concentrated cyanide and ammonia flowed into the lake, the source of drinking water for 7 million people.

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Portage Mayor John Cannon blamed the steel factory for the leak, and criticized the state’s environmental department for failing to report the concerns for three days.

City of Portage

You might think that when a company has a long record of polluting our drinking water, including a recent chemical spill that killed thousands of fish in Lake Michigan, state and federal officials would spring into action.

You might think the U.S. EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management would have begun investigating long ago, methodically and aggressively, to understand why the polluting goes on and on, and taken every step to put an end to it.

You might think they would do their jobs.

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But they have not.

Environmentalists file notice of suit

Both government agencies have been pretty much missing in action, prompting two environmental groups on Friday to file a 60-day notice of a lawsuit in the hope of convincing the federal government and Indiana that it’s not a good thing to allow dangerously toxic chemicals to flow into the lake.

Such a lawsuit is permitted by the federal Clean Water Act when the government fails to act.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Hoosier Environmental Council report that the Burns Harbor steel mill in northwest Indiana, owned by ArcelorMittal, has broken clean-water laws more than 100 times since 2015. That includes an Aug. 11 toxic spill of concentrated cyanide and ammonia into a ditch that drains into the Little Calumet River, which in turn flows into Lake Michigan.

The ELPC says the “total cyanide load” discharged from one outfall at the mill was 548% higher than the legal limit on Aug. 12, 795% higher on Aug. 13, 557% higher on Aug 14 and 419% higher on Aug. 15. The amount of ammonia discharged into the environment also far exceeded the legal limit.

No rush to crack down

Yet the supposed environmental sheriffs here — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management — have made an art of foot-dragging. They repeatedly have sent a message that cracking down on polluters is simply not a priority for them, particularly on the federal level by the Trump administration.

After the most recent spill, local officials in Portage, Indiana, complained that the public was not warned for several days, at which point the sight of thousands of dead fish floating around a nearby marina made it clear something bad had happened.

Boaters complained about the stench of the dead fish. Local fishermen were warned not to eat their catch. The toxic spill was so severe that officials closed nearby beaches, including in the Indiana Dunes National Park, and shut off a drinking water intake.

The EPA and IDEM have said they will file inspection reports about the Aug. 11 spill, but neither agency has taken formal enforcement action over any of the steel mill spills over the past four years, according to records obtained by the The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Why the failure to act

Part of the problem is that budget cuts have hacked away at IDEM’s staffing levels year after year. And scientists at the U.S. EPA’s regional office have complained for more than two years that the Trump administration’s antipathy toward environmental regulations has made it harder for them to be effective. The bosses don’t back them up.

When government environmental watchdogs are not watching, any company has a motivation to handle toxic waste in the cheapest way possible, which can mean cutting corners in ways that add to environmental pollution.

Last May, ArcelorMittal was fined more than $5 million for clean-air violations that date back years, but nothing was done about the clean-water violations.

The company says the Aug. 11 spill at its Burns Harbor facility occurred because of a loss of power at a pump station, and that workers did not realize wastewater with ammonia and cyanide would get into the lake.

Assuming that explanation is true, it does not explain the many previous toxic spills. That kind of lax industrial management also is far less likely when there’s a real government watchdog on duty.

Seven million people get their drinking water from Lake Michigan. The U.S. EPA and the state of Indiana owe every one of them a thorough investigation and an end to this nonsense.

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