When a rust-colored fluid spilled from a U.S. Steel plant in Portage, Indiana, into Lake Michigan on Sunday, everyone had the same question: Why does this keep happening at industrial facilities along the shore of our beautiful lake?
The obvious answer: Companies are not doing enough to prevent it. They need to do a better job of protecting the lake, and federal environmental regulators need to do a better of ensuring they do so.
People spotted Sunday’s plume of discolored water — it was easy enough to see — as pollutants flowed from the plant’s outfall into the Burns Waterway and into the lake, about 30 miles east of Chicago. But absorbent booms were not deployed to protect the lake because workers didn’t notice the spill in time. Ironically, U.S. Steel had just signed a consent decree earlier this month stemming from a 2017 leak of hazardous hexavalent chromium, which leaked along the same route into the lake.
The spills keep coming, as regularly as the seasonal birds migrations up and down the shoreline. But with a lot less charm, and good reason to worry.
In May, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management penalized U.S. Steel $950,000 for more than 25 permit violations at Portage Mill from November 2018 to December 2020. The Cleveland-Cliffs steel mill at Burns Harbor, then owned by ArcelorMittal, spilled cyanide and ammonia into the lake in 2019, killing 3,000 fish. At the time, the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Hoosier Environmental Council said the plant had broken clean-water laws more than 100 times since 2015.
You might think industrial plants along the lake would put in more controls and oversight. Instead, they are always talking about this glitch or that machine that broke down or workers who made poor decisions or didn’t realize there was a problem. Fail-safe is not a part of their vocabulary.
But the area in which they are operating is a priceless national treasure. We should all be doing our utmost to protect it.
Lake Michigan provides drinking water to 7 million people in Illinois and Indiana. The newly designated 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Park, one of the most biologically diverse national parks in the country, attracts more than 2 million visitors each year. But those who showed up to enjoy a day of summer-like weather early this week were greeted by closed beaches, including at Portage Beach, one of the park’s three most popular. Also, a northwest Indiana water utility had to shut down an intake facility. The U.S. Steel plant idled its operations.
Under the consent decree, U.S. Steel agreed to pay a $601,242 civil penalty and a reimbursement of more than $625,000 to government agencies for the spill of hazardous hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing pollutant made famous by the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.” The company also will spend $600,000 over the next three years testing the lake and connected waterways for pollution.
Where are the government environmental sentries who are supposed to be keeping a critical eye on all this? It’s not like they’re dozing off. There just aren’t enough of them.
The position of administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 5, which covers Indiana, has been vacant since Jan. 15. The agency has been hiring staff to reverse the hollowing out that occurred under the Trump administration, but is still some 200 people shy of its staffing during the Obama administration. The job of director at the northwest regional office of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management has been vacant since April. Environmentalists say IDEM has traditionally been under-resourced. It needs more capacity to investigate environmental problems.
Steel mills and other rust-belt industries have lined the lake for generations, providing good jobs. They’re not about to disappear any time soon. But there’s no reason they can’t operate profitably without doing harm to our drinking water or threatening national environmental treasures.
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