Beaches along the Indiana Dunes National Park are closed and at least one municipal drinking water plant was shut down after a large rust-colored discharge of liquid spilled into Lake Michigan from the U.S. Steel plant in Portage, Ind.
On Monday, Indiana and U.S. environmental officials continued to investigate the Sunday night incident and have been collecting water samples. Indiana officials, who are leading the government response, said they have not detected dead fish or wildlife as a result of the spill.
The utility Indiana American Water shut down its Ogden Dunes, Ind., treatment facility as a precaution. The plant is one of two run by the company, which provides water to customers in Northwest Indiana.
U.S. Steel said it shut down its plant after experiencing a problem with its wastewater treatment. The company said it is conducting its own water sampling and investigation.
Local officials said they were frustrated by the incident.
“That’s our drinking water. We can’t have that threatened,” said Portage City Councilman Collin Czilli. “I recognize this is what comes with industry, but what we need is better environmental management. Is it cheaper for them to pay a fine than to improve environmental controls?”
Noting that U.S. Steel is a large employer in the area, Portage Mayor Sue Lynch called the industry presence on the lake “kind of a conundrum” and chided the company.
“We do expect them to be respectful to the environment and monitor their outfalls,” said Lynch, who noted that much of the rust color in the water had disappeared by Monday afternoon.
The discharge Sunday took place at Burns Waterway Harbor near an industrial cluster of factories along Lake Michigan just southeast of Chicago. The steel plant has a permit to discharge some of its wastewater into the waterway, though there are a number of environmental restrictions. It’s unclear what actually was released.
The discharge was reported Sunday evening, according to the National Park Service. The park service manages the Indiana Dunes, which spans the Lake Michigan shoreline from Gary to Michigan City, Indiana.
Earlier this month, U.S. Steel and the state of Indiana announced they had entered into an agreement requiring the company to address alleged violations of the Clean Water Act “by undertaking substantial measures to improve wastewater treatment and monitoring systems” at its Portage steel-making and finishing plant.
As part of that agreement, U.S. Steel agreed to pay more than $1.2 million in penalties and reimbursements to state and federal governments for contaminating water with pollutants, including the harmful metal hexavalent chromium. The National Park Service was among the agencies receiving reimbursement from the company.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.