Surfers in Indiana to Sue U.S. Steel, Say Pollution Led to Illnesses

By Alex Ebert

Surfers riding Lake Michigan’s waves close to a U.S. Steel plant plan to sue the manufacturer, alleging years of Clean Water Act violations and lax enforcement.

“They’re modern vikings, but there’s been a long history of surfers getting sick in northwest Indiana,” Mitch McNeil, chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Chicago chapter. “What’s happened with U.S. Steel is really beyond the pale.”

Since 2013, U.S. Steel has self-reported 32 violations of anti-pollution laws at its Portage, Ind., plant, including discharges of chemicals linked to cancer, and oil and grease that have exceeded the company’s permits. U.S. Steel didn’t respond to Bloomberg Environment’s requests for comment.

While several large discharges drew regulatory attention this year, the EPA and Indiana have not pressed enforcement in more than four years against U.S. Steel. Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management and the Environmental Protection Agency are also negotiating with U.S. Steel to reach an agreement in federal court “in the very near future,” IDEM told Bloomberg Environment. That agreement will cover penalties the state is seeking against U.S. Steel, the department said.

But, U.S. Steel’s discharges at the site led to more than a dozen incidents where the water temperature near the plant—which flows into Lake Michigan—has increased to levels environmentalists fear will harm wildlife, attorneys for the Surfrider Foundation told Bloomberg Environment.

The Surfrider Foundation expects their consent decree to be filed as early as this week.

Surfers donning wetsuits take on the icy waves of Lake Michigan, where they say U.S. Steel has violated the Clean Water Act for years.
Photographer: Mike Killion
Chromium Discharges

The area of Lake Michigan adjacent to the plant isn’t just for ice-bearded surfers. It’s also home to a 15-mile national park, which environmentalists say has plant and animal populations at risk if pollution isn’t properly managed.

“Imagine giant buildings, lots of smokestacks, and big rusting outflow pipes dropped into the middle of a national park containing rare plants, migrating wildlife, and beaches that attract nearly two million people each year,” Colin Deverell, Midwest program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told Bloomberg Environment. “That’s the U.S. Steel Portage facility at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.”

In April 2017, U.S. Steel exceeded their permit level of 30 pounds per day when they discharged roughly 350 pounds of chromium. Of highest concern was a discharge of 298 pounds of hexavalent chromium, which led to the closing of drinking water intakes in nearby towns and public beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore park.

Hexavalent chromium is a known carcinogen that can cause skin reactions with continued exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The company reported another discharge of more than 50 pounds in October during one of the best surfing weekends of the year at local beaches, according to the Surfriders.

Self-Reporting Failures

While environmentalists called on the U.S. EPA to take action against U.S. Steel in a December letter, some also are placing blame on Indiana’s environmental enforcement agency.

“It’s hard to understand how a state agency charged solely with managing the environment can drop the ball on doing their job to protect environmental resources and human health so frequently,” Deverell said. “It appears as though IDEM has little interest in enforcing the laws they are charged with upholding.”

After October’s discharge, IDEM inspected the Portage facility and found several self-reporting lapses by U.S. Steel. The company didn’t have turbidity meters to monitor discharges in two of the three discharge channels at the plant, according to IDEM’s December report.

The regulators also said self-monitoring was “unsatisfactory” because the company failed to test for hexavalent chromium in discharges despite seeing signs of the chemical there.

“There’s a fundamental problem of transparency because we rely on the company self-reporting and state regulators are not doing inspections or taking their own tests at the level they should.” Robert Weinstock, Abrams Clinical Fellow and Lecturer in Law at the University of Chicago, told Bloomberg Environment. “The other piece is notification and what information is made available to the public.”

The university’s clinic is helping the Surfrider Foundation bring their suit.

IDEM emphasizes its enforcement for companies on “the exceedance, the potential harm caused by the exceedance, compliance history and other factors,” Ryan Clem, IDEM director of communications and external relations, told Bloomberg Environment.

“Because exceedances are required to be reported through the monthly reporting requirements in accordance with US Steel’s NPDES permit, IDEM is aware of permit exceedances.”

IDEM didn’t comment on why it hasn’t sought penalties against U.S. Steel for violations during the four-year period.