After two recent U.S. Steel discharges, Gov. Holcomb, IDEM to need to fix broken environmental protection system

October 9, 2021 – by Susan Thomas in the Chicago Tribune (paywall)

As her state of disbelief quickly turned to outrage, Susan MiHalo watched an orange plume of murky discharge expand from the U.S. Steel Burns Harbor outflow into Lake Michigan. Residents and boaters had seen the spill early that afternoon of Sept. 26, but were unsure of who to call. There were no signs along the waterway with this emergency information. By the time MiHalo, chair of the Ogden Dunes Environmental Advisory Board (ODEAB), was alerted and started making emergency calls, hours had passed. Within one hour of her first calls, the National Park Service arrived on the scene and promptly closed all area beaches out of an abundance of caution.

Contrast that to the time it took the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and United States Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 (EPA) to show up at the scene: it was almost 8 p.m. and the precious hours to contain the spill were lost. While an anxious public panicked over what could be in that orange plume, U.S. Steel, IDEM and EPA had no comment on the substance for several days — a gut punch of a response, considering only weeks earlier IDEM Commissioner Bruno Pigott vociferously assured attendees at a public comment hearing that IDEM was taking its severe emergency communication problems with industry and area towns “very, very seriously,” while granting U.S. Steel another five-year permit in spite of hundreds of violations and legal actions against the mill.

That very public hearing was for a National Pollution Discharge Elimination Systems (NPDES) permit renewal for another area steel mill Cleveland-Cliffs, formerly ArcelorMittal, whose 2019 toxic ammonia and cyanide spill into Burns Harbor was ignored by industry and IDEM until thousands of dead fish surfaced four days after the spill. Throughout that time, residents of Ogden Dunes and visitors to the National Park continued to recreate in the lake, including drinking and bathing in that water. There was no emergency response. In contrast, Ogden Dunes Town Council President Doug Cannon literally ran down to the beach himself to call people out of the water. For area residents, the U.S. Steel spill was a bitter repeat of those events of only two years prior.

By the time that 2019 catastrophic spill happened, ArcelorMittal had already broken Clean Water laws more than 100 times, according to a lawsuit filed against them by the Hoosier Environmental Council and the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Bianca Passo, also of Ogden Dunes ODEAB, said “Each time an industrial spill occurs, our town is forced to close the beach and Indiana American Water must shut off the Ogden Dunes drinking water intake. Each time an illegal discharge occurs we feel like we are playing a game of roulette, wondering what type of toxic chemical might be dumped next.”

Residents, area business, and the $500 million tourism industry in Northwest Indiana have plenty of reasons to be nervous. U.S. Steel just signed a consent decree this September intended to prevent future illegal discharges, in reaction to their 2017 toxic hexavalent chromium spill (that flowed the same route into Lake Michigan as their Sept. 26 spill, which was finally identified days later as a permitable amount of iron). U.S. Steel was also required to pay a civil penalty of $601,242 and reimburse government agencies for $625,000, plus pay $600,000 over the next three years for testing the lake and its connected waterways. In May, IDEM fined U.S. Steel $950,000 for more than 25 permit violations from 2018-2020. Unfortunately the monetary sum of their penalties is no deterrent — it’s an actual bargain for U.S. Steel, whose record profits this year were recorded in excess of $1 billion. U.S. Steel’s history in environmental violations is vast in other states as well: Between 2018-19 alone they violated the Clean Air Act more than 12,000 times according to a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Days after the Sept. 26 spill, area outrage finally reached a tipping point, which has grown in volume since the spill was followed by an oil spill from U.S. Steel Midwest earlier this week. Spearheaded by Save the Dunes, a coalition of more than 25 organizations including environmental groups, local governments and agencies, residents associations, and recreation and sporting groups convened for an emergency meeting. Subsequently, they sent a letter to Governor Eric Holcomb and IDEM Commissioner Pigott demanding stiffer monetary penalties, heightened scrutiny, and vigorous enforcement against chronic polluters. They also demanded pollution control and communications requirements be strengthened in future NPDES permit renewals with further review of IDEM’s permitting process, and more thorough support for IDEM, which lost $35 million in budget cuts over the last decade leading to staffing issues.

“Over the last several budget cycles IDEM and the Department of Natural Resources have been sorely underfunded,” says retiring State Senator for the region’s lake shore districts Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes. “With the budget surplus we have now, there is no excuse. Indiana needs that money to get back in the fight to protect our environment.”

IDEM permitting allows industry to self-monitor/self-test, leaving the fox to guard the hen house. It was a whistleblower, not IDEM, revealed repeated fraudulent testing from ArcelorMittal following the 2019 spills. It is worth noting that the emergency coalition was not convinced the Sept. 26 spill was “harmless” iron. Though EPA and IDEM approved the results, it was U.S. Steel who conducted the tests. At the federal level, EPA Region 5, that serves Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota and 35 Indigenous Tribes, only has an acting director but no one to officially fill that job yet after budget cuts hampered its effectiveness during the Trump years. It’s also seen as a free pass to industry polluters.

Economy and environment linked

Unless immediate emergency actions are taken for area industry to obey the Clean Water Act and environmental laws, we are headed toward a state where gross domestic product revenues, property values and taxes will plummet with each passing spill. The hundreds of millions recently invested in the South Shore Double Track railroad upgrade, expanded Marquette Greenway Trail, and National Park to improve area quality of life and increase area tourism will be squandered. Who would plan a visit to the shore when our beaches are closed, while parkland trails lay on NIPSCO’s toxic coal ash that harms plant life and the food chain in that globally unique microbiome? There is no emergency plan to protect the lake if the corroded wall holding tons of NIPSCO coal ash on Michigan City’s shoreline gives way. Last week, 21-foot high waves were recorded there, and area towns lost their beach access stairs yet again as the high lake levels and erosion crisis continues.

Long Beach resident and retired educator, grandmother and author Cheryl Chapman who attended the coalition meeting, said “I devote volunteer time to preserving the beauty, accessibility and health of the Lake. Industry and leaders must step up and do the same. I care about leaving Lake Michigan in even better shape for future generations to live here..”

Yet state elected officials refuse to acknowledge the direct link between Indiana’s environment and its economy. Governor Holcomb visited the Indiana Dunes National Park’s refurbished pavilion with much fanfare earlier this summer to discuss the state’s regional economic initiative, a pot that totals $500 million in state funds to attract businesses to Indiana. He admiringly acknowledged what a jewel the renovated pavilion and National Park is, an unparalleled source of tourism revenue for the state. Yet only two years prior, he refused to sign a Declaration of Emergency during the Lake Michigan erosion crisis caused by climate change in large part from greenhouse gases emitted by the very industries along the lake. By doing so he denied the region’s towns and beaches desperately needed funding to repair the significant damage to the shoreline, beach access, roads, parking lots and infrastructure. The town of Beverly Shores alone had to pony up a $5 million bond, pass the hat for resident donations, and rely on massive volunteer effort to make vital structural and shore repairs.

Still Holcomb arrived at the pavilion reopening with bells on, saying the state and region’s biggest hurdle “is making sure that people are skilled up for the jobs that are not today but for tomorrow.” The decades-long brain drain impacting the state is a familiar subject to him. But what good is a well-paying skilled union job if the air you breathe from your industry employer is giving you a documented higher risk of cancer? Why would any skilled or educated person want to live or raise a family in a toxic dump?

Ask the residents of the Town of Pines, a failed “alternate” Superfund site. One million tons of NIPSCO’s coal ash from a landfill poisoned the town’s wells, decimating their property values of an already modest community. Income and race disparities were noted in the coalition letter to Holcomb as well, citing the “long history of environmental impacts across Northwest Indiana, including in East Chicago … which have most negatively impacted communities of color and low-income communities due to proximity to industrial facilities.”

State Legislature Supermajority

Indiana industry is emboldened by a Republican supermajority in the State House that defers to party-line on environmental issues and safety regulations, ignoring public outrage.

Their most blatant dismissal of public outcry was the passage of the anti-wetlands bill, a bill so egregious that a local environmentalist and others staged a hunger strike. An 11-year-old boy created an online/social media presentation and petition, delivering the thousands of signatures it garnered to the Governor’s office himself. Environmental and citizen advocacy groups rallied at the Statehouse imploring Holcomb to veto the bill. All to no avail; the anti-wetland’s bill was not vetoed to the obvious benefit of the bill’s legislative sponsors and authors, all of whom are in the building and real-estate development industry.

Every piece of pro-environmental legislation was summarily dismissed last session by the chairman of the House Environmental Affairs Committee, Representative Doug Gutwein, who refused to hold a single committee meeting to hear those bills but kept the $1,000 stipend for his role as chairman.

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Sen. Tallian actually resigned last week in disgust at the difficulty in legislating anything as a super-minority, saying, “After 16 years, I’ve had enough.” In no small feat, she secured two Republican sponsors on her coal ash bill before it was killed.

Surrounding states must step in

The coalition letter to the Governor and IDEM states, “It is clear that Indiana’s system of water pollution control regulation is broken.”

Seven million people in surrounding states depend on Lake Michigan for their drinking water. Will federal legislators in Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan take action and demand immediate emergency response of their irresponsible, negligent neighbor to protect their own rights to clean water and uphold the Clean Water Act?

It is time to bypass the Indiana legislators who refused to do so in spite of overflowing state coffers that could be used to allow such protections, and hold them liable for the health and economy of the Great Lakes region and Nation. As illustrated by the latest U.S. Steel spills and the events leading up to them, there is no other working plan.

Susan Thomas is the Director of Legislation & Policy for Just Transition Northwest Indiana and former Environmental Trend Analyst for Westrend Group in Denver, Colorado. She resides in Beverly Shores, where she co-chairs the Environment Committee for the Association of Beverly Shores Residents.


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One Response to After two recent U.S. Steel discharges, Gov. Holcomb, IDEM to need to fix broken environmental protection system

  1. Larry Davis says:

    IDEM no longer enforces environmental law… They now do “Compliance Consultations” instead!

    When is the last time you saw a criminal case concerning environmental violations in Indiana?

    I checked the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) Spills Data report which had the release from U.S. Steel Midwest Plant reported 9-26-2021 with “Pending additional information.” The Excel columns for what was spilled “material” and how much was spilled “amt. spilled” and “units” are left blank which seems odd when compared to most of the rest of the list and given the size of this spill into Burns Waterway and Lake Michigan 4 days earlier… See: [ ] ‘Spills from December 3, 2010 to September 30, 2021 [XLSX]’

    Why is IDEM withholding information on what caused the incident and what may have been released inside the plant to bring about such a spill? I though that the public had a Right To Know when a release occurs, just what exactly was released, and how much was released when a spill occurs in their community…!

    I was told by IDEM that information won’t be released for another two weeks until after their report is “reviewed” that was at the end of September 2021…

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