Oil spill closes Lake Michigan beaches; 2nd discharge in 2 weeks by U.S. Steel in Indiana

The oil leaked from the same plant that let out a large amount of iron — causing a plume of rust-colored liquid in the lake — in late September.

SHARE Oil spill closes Lake Michigan beaches; 2nd discharge in 2 weeks by U.S. Steel in Indiana

Another accident at the U.S. Steel site in Northwest Indiana has forced the closure of Lake Michigan beaches.

NBC5 Chicago

An oil spill from the U.S. Steel plant in Northwest Indiana forced the closure of nearby Lake Michigan beaches for the second time in less than two weeks.

The company said it discovered an oil sheen in the commercial harbor known as Burns Waterway in Portage, Ind., just southeast of Chicago Thursday morning. It’s unclear if the oil spill was fully contained to prevent it from spreading further into Lake Michigan. 

The oil leaked from the same plant that discharged a large amount of iron — causing a plume of rust-colored liquid in the lake — in late September. That accident prompted the National Park Service to close all Indiana Dunes beaches from Gary to Michigan City, Ind., although they were reopened after several days after officials said the water didn’t pose a health risk. The park service on Thursday closed a smaller swath of lakefront around the oil spill, a spokesman confirmed.

Indiana environmental officials said they are investigating the latest incident.

More than 20 conservation, environmental and other advocacy groups recently sent a letter to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, asking him to strengthen environmental enforcement for pollution violations by industrial entities. One of the groups, which advocates for national parks, such as the Dunes, expressed outrage at the most recent incident involving U.S. Steel.

“Indiana Dunes is a national park — it deserves better than this, and so do the millions of people who visit its shores each year,” Lynn McClure, senior director for regional programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, said in a statement to the Sun-Times.

A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said in a statement that the oil appears to be contained by a boom — a floating barrier — and that vacuum trucks are working to remove it from the water. 

Lake Michigan is the source of drinking water for millions of people in Chicago and in other communities along the lakeshore. The previous discharge of iron into the lake forced the temporary shutdown of a water treatment plant by Indiana American Water but a spokesman for the local utility said the facility is still operating following the most recent mishap because the oil spill seemed to be small and contained. 

“We are continuing to closely watch our source water monitors and remain in contact with all involved parties regarding this situation,” the spokesman said.

In early September, U.S. Steel and the state of Indiana said they entered into an agreement that requires the company to address past alleged violations of the Clean Water Act by improving wastewater treatment and monitoring at the steel-finishing plant in Portage.

U.S. Steel agreed to pay more than $1.2 million in penalties and reimbursements to state and federal government agencies after the prior release of the toxic metal hexavalent chromium.

Under an environmental permit issued to the company from federal and Indiana regulators, U.S. Steel must keep the release of toxic metals such as chromium and hexavalent chromium to very low levels. Following the discharge of iron in late September, the levels of those toxic metals didn’t exceed the set maximum limits, Indiana officials said.

The late-September accident is still under investigation to determine if the company violated the federal pollution law known as the Clean Water Act.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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