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Toxic Dumping
LAKE MICHIGAN
Lake Michigan is one of the world’s most abundant and most precious natural resources. But two hexavalent chromium spills in Indiana threaten the very livelihood of the Great Lake.

Lake Michigan may not be the most obvious of places to find a group of surfers catching a wave, but Surfrider Foundation, the international organization dedicated to the protection of the world’s beaches, calls many unusual regions home. Chicago, for example, a city best known for its former meatpacking factories, flat prairie landscape, and skyscrapers, is home to a chapter of its own. Although most Chicagoans (or Great Lakes inhabitants at-large) may have never heard of Surfrider, most will want to thank the Foundation soon for their actions working to preserve Lake Michigan as a whole.

On Jan. 17, 2018, Surfrider, in conjunction with the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago, filed a lawsuit against U.S. Steel for violating the federal Clean Water Act. According to the lawsuit, U.S. Steel has repeatedly dumped toxic levels of the cancer-causing hexavalent chromium in Lake Michigan. A week later, the city of Chicago also filed suit against the company for the same charges.

For outsiders, the lawsuits appear to have sprung up overnight, but careful observers of the health and protection of Lake Michigan have tracked a pattern of negligence and cover-up which significantly put inhabitants in and around the Great Lake in grave danger.

U.S. Steel’s environmental negligence is well-known. In 2016, for example, the Political Economy Research Institute ranked U.S. Steel 32nd in its list of the greatest corporate producers of air pollution. And numerous class action lawsuits, including one on behalf of the residents of River Rouge, Michigan, and the nearby town of Ecorse, have been filed against the company for their practices.  

But it was the company’s two hexavalent chromium spills that first caught Surfrider’s attention. The first spill occurred in early April of 2017. An expansion joint in U.S. Steel’s Portage, Indiana, facility failed, allowing wastewater from an extrapolating treatment process containing hexavalent chromium to flow into the improper area, reports the Chicago Tribune. The wastewater then spilled into Burns Waterway, causing the closure of three beaches at the popular Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and leading a local water utility to stop drawing water from the source, said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nearly 350 pounds of chromium spilled into the tributary, about 300 of which contained hexavalent chromium.

Less than six months later, an additional 56.7 pounds of the same hexavalent chromium spilled into the lake from the same plant. According to the Chicago Tribune, U.S. Steel revealed in a letter to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management the levels of chromium were 89 percent higher over a 24-hour period than normally allowed. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management did not visit the facility to test for the metal until November 16, one day after the Chicago Tribune first reported the second spill. The results of their visit were grim.

According to a Dec. 13, 2017, article from the Chicago Tribune, the department found plant managers opted not to test for the most dangerous form of hexavalent chromium, despite the toxic levels of the April spill. The department inspector also found “visual evidence of operational deficiencies, such as discolored effluent in solids leaving the facility,” according to a publicly available inspection summary. The report also said the deficiencies should have “lead the facility to monitor for hexavalent chromium to determine the extent of the impact, even if the on-site personnel believe there will be none or little.” Additionally, U.S. Steel did not report the October spill to the National Response Center, which alerts local authorities about oil spills and chemical releases.

Hexavalent chromium is likely not a new name for pop culture consumers. In 2000, the toxic chemical was made infamous by the movie “Erin Brockovich.” Exposure to hexavalent chromium can increase the risk of reproductive problems, cause liver and kidney damage, and lead to lung and nasal cancers.

U.S. Steel’s total chromium discharge is restricted to 30 pounds per day, with only 0.51 pounds of that total allowed for hexavalent chromium discharge. Quarterly testing by the Chicago Department of Water Management showed hexavalent chromium as high as 0.22 parts per billion in tested drinking water in 2017, a number that is 11-times higher than a 2009 health goal adopted by California officials. California’s 0.06 parts per billion health goal reportedly reduces the lifetime risk of developing cancer to a negligible amount.

In April, U.S. Steel argued to pay $900,000 to settle the lawsuit. According to the Chicago Tribune, lawyers for the EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management began private negotiations with U.S. Steel after filing the lawsuits. In addition to their financial obligation, U.S. Steel will start daily tests for hexavalent chromium in the water near the Portage plant, create a preventative maintenance program, and improve their monitoring of other forms of pollution.

“U.S. Steel continually seeks opportunities for improvement in its environmental compliance program, and will apply lessons learned from this process to future operations company-wide,” said a spokeswoman in a statement.

But it’ll take more than this settlement to convince the two complainants of real change. A joint public letter from the Chicago Law Department and the Surfrider Foundation to the Acting Assistant Attorney of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division and the EPA’s Region 5 Administrator declared the settlement terms as “unfair, unreasonable, and inadequate.”

“We will oppose entry of any consent decree that does not properly hold U.S. Steel accountable for its actions as well as ensure that the Plant is never again the site of another dangerous incident such as those that occurred in April and October 2017,” the letter said. “Unless certain changes are made regarding the process for considering the [proposed settlement], we will be forced to oppose its entry simply because neither we nor the broader public will have a meaningful and fair opportunity to evaluate its adequacy.”

The joint letter is also concerned with the level of transparency necessary to evaluate the proposed settlement terms. Both parties were left out of the negotiations, making the concerns unknown. There have been no updates about the state of the settlement after the release of the joint letter, indicating that the fight to protect Lake Michigan, and the Great Lakes as a whole, is far from over.

The spillage and failure to inform the public of the spillage not only extended the severity of the immediate health crisis derived from exposure to the chemical, it also delayed necessary preventative measures (like a regulatory inspection) to stop future spillages from occurring. On numerous occasions, U.S. Steel failed in its efforts to protect the public, making the strength of both lawsuits clear.

As the joint letter stated,

“Lake Michigan is our region’s most precious resource and we are determined to change this situation permanently and positively and to prevent such violations from recurring.”

How long it takes to make that a reality remains to be seen.

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