Cyanide spill in Lake Michigan tributary leads to $3 million settlement

The spill of cyanide and ammonia at the former ArcelorMittal plant killed almost 3,000 fish in 2019.

SHARE Cyanide spill in Lake Michigan tributary leads to $3 million settlement
ArcelorMittal’s facility in Burns Harbor, Ind.

Cleveland-Cliffs settled lawsuits brought by government and nonprofit organizations, including Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Sun-Times files

The owner of a Northwest Indiana steel mill agreed to pay $3 million in penalties, donate more than 100 acres of land for conservation and agree to pollution controls after a 2019 spill of ammonia and cyanide killed thousands of fish in a Lake Michigan tributary.

Cleveland-Cliffs settled lawsuits brought by government and nonprofit organizations, including Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center. The spill into the Little Calumet River near the plant’s Burns Harbor site reportedly killed almost 3,000 fish when the plant was owned by ArcelorMittal.

“This is a big win for protecting the Great Lakes,” ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner said in an interview. “In addition to penalizing past bad behavior it’s important to say, ‘Let’s make the environment better going forward.”

In addition to fines that will be split between the state of Indiana and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Cleveland-Cliffs agreed to make equipment and operational improvements aimed at avoiding future spills and said it will conduct nearby water quality testing.

The company also consented to transfer 127 acres it owns to a land trust for future conservation uses. The land is adjacent to the Indiana Dunes National Park and has an appraised value of about $2 million, Learner said.

ELPC, along with Indiana’s Hoosier Environmental Council, filed a federal lawsuit in late 2019. The Justice Department, on behalf of the EPA, and Indiana followed with their own federal complaint.

“EPA and its partners worked together to develop a comprehensive solution,” the agency said in a statement.

Indiana officials previously said ArcelorMittal had failed to immediately report the toxic leaks in 2019. Learner’s organization charged in a lawsuit that the plant had repeatedly violated the federal Clean Water Act.

Under that act, ELPC along with the Indiana group filed a “citizen enforcement” lawsuit, which helped spur the government actions.

“The amount of ammonia and cyanide discharged was greatly in excess of what was allowed,” he said. “We’re sending a clear message to polluters.”

Cleveland-Cliffs, which bought ArcelorMittal’s U.S. operations in 2020, said its Indiana plant “implemented new systems to prevent a recurrence of the event from 2019 and is committed to preserving these preventative measures.”

The penalties were more than twice the $1.2 million U.S. Steel agreed to pay last year to address past allegations of toxic metal releases from its Northwest Indiana facility along Lake Michigan, another violation of the Clean Water Act.

More recently, U.S. Steel was accused of two additional discharges of oil and iron into the water near its Portage, Indiana, plant.Those spills forced the closure of Indiana Dunes’ beaches and a municipal water plant.

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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