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Indiana Dunes beaches reopen after U.S. Steel spills iron into Lake Michigan

Indiana, federal environmental officials declare the water is safe for humans after high levels of iron flowed into the lake.  

High levels of iron dumped into Lake Michigan from the U.S. Steel plant in Portage led to the shutdown of Indiana Dunes beaches this week.
NBC5 Chicago

The water around the U.S. Steel plant in Northwest Indiana does not pose a human health risk after a large discharge of iron into Lake Michigan over the weekend, government officials said Wednesday.

Beaches along the Indiana Dunes National Park, which extend from Gary to Michigan City, Ind., reopened after being closed following the large discharge of rust-colored liquid Sunday, a spokesman confirmed. However, a local water plant that draws water from a nearby intake in Lake Michigan remains closed until the utility can complete its own analysis of water samples, a spokesman for Indiana American Water said.

“The reddish-orange discharge from the U.S. Steel Midwest Plant outfall was caused by high levels of iron,” Indiana environmental officials said in a statement, adding that an investigation is still ongoing as to whether the plant violated the federal pollution law known as the Clean Water Act.

“Federal and state agencies continue to investigate the matter to determine the cause of the discharge and possible Clean Water Act compliance issues, as well as environmental impacts and further actions that are necessary to ensure future compliance,” the statement said.

U.S. Steel, which operates the plant along the lakeshore in Portage, Ind., said the discharge was the result of a malfunction, though it has not elaborated. The company has not quantified how much iron flowed into Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for millions in Chicago, the suburbs and Indiana.

Preliminary water samples collected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency indicate the levels of harmful metals or chemicals in the water as a result of the discharge don’t pose a human health threat. Under an environmental permit issued to U.S. Steel from federal and Indiana regulators, the company must keep the release of toxic metals such as chromium and hexavalent chromium to very low levels. In this instance, the levels didn’t exceed the set maximum limits, Indiana officials said.

In early September, U.S. Steel agreed to pay more than $1.2 million in penalties and reimbursements to state and federal governments for contaminating the lake with hexavalent chromium and other harmful substances.

The latest government response to the accident has some local officials upset.

“It just seems like U.S. Steel and EPA and [Indiana] are not taking this seriously,” said Portage City Councilman Collin Czilli. “This is a big issue for us and for our drinking water.”

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