Chicago rips Indiana steel company for threatening our drinking water after 2 spills

Both the EPA and city on Friday called the situation at U.S. Steel in Portage “unacceptable.”

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Chicago officials are calling for tougher rules for industrial polluters after two recent accidents at the U.S. Steel plant in Northwest Indiana contaminated Lake Michigan and a nearby waterway.

NBC5 Chicago

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s Administration is asking Indiana and U.S. environmental officials to crack down on industrial businesses along Lake Michigan to protect the region’s drinking water after U.S. Steel’s Portage, Ind., plant dumped contaminants in the water twice in a two-week period.

“U.S. Steel’s disregard for our region’s most precious natural resource is unacceptable,” the Chicago Department of Water said in a statement. “Millions of Illinoisans rely on Lake Michigan as their water supply. We urge the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and U.S. [Environmental Protection Agency] to respond urgently to this matter and to make protection of the lake from industrial pollution a priority.”

The latest accident at the steel plant took place Thursday when oil spilled into a commercial harbor that connects to Lake Michigan. Company officials said they believe the oil spill was contained and did not flow into the lake, though an investigation continues. Indiana officials say some oil was seen outside the contained area and they continue to look into the matter. Nearby Indiana Dunes beaches remained closed Friday pending water test results.

On Sept. 26, a large discharge of iron into the lake from the same plant created a massive rust-colored plume that spread out into the lake. That accident prompted a local water utility in Indiana to shut down a treatment plant and it forced the closure of all Indiana Dunes beaches for several days. While acknowledging the iron release, U.S. Steel and environmental regulators said levels of more serious toxic metals such as chromium and hexavalent chromium were not detected at unsafe levels.

Chicago water officials said they conducted their own water sampling following the September accident and found no contamination to the city’s drinking water. Those samples were collected from the lake near the spill and at the Sawyer Water Purification Plant on the South Side, one of two treatment facilities operated by the city.

The city said it should be immediately notified of any discharge of contaminants “as rapid notification enables us to respond rapidly to protect our water supply.”

The city was contacted by the company about the oil spill this week but received no notification about the iron discharge last month, Chicago Water Management spokeswoman Megan Vidis said.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski declined to comment. Barry Sneed, a spokesman for the Indiana environmental agency, said he could not immediately comment.

However, the EPA’s top official in the Midwest vowed that the company will not be let off the hook.

“Working together with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, EPA will hold U.S. Steel accountable and take every step necessary to ensure compliance with environmental law,” acting regional administrator Cheryl Newton said in a statement. “The current status quo at U.S. Steel’s Midwest facility in Portage is unacceptable.”

The EPA and Indiana have said that both accidents are under investigation. 

Separately, U.S. Steel recently agreed to pay $1.2 million in penalties and reimbursements to government agencies related to earlier releases of hexavalent chromium in Lake Michigan. The company also committed to undertake “substantial measures to improve wastewater treatment and monitoring systems” at its plant, according to an EPA statement in early September.

“It requires U.S. Steel to undertake numerous measures to improve its facility, which will ensure the future protection of Lake Michigan and Northwest Indiana’s environment,” Bruno Pigott, Indiana’s top environmental official, said in the statement.

On Friday, Indiana officials said they continue to investigate the cause of the oil spill and “the potential repercussions under the recently entered consent decree and state agreed order.”

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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