PORTAGE — U.S. Steel says elevated concentrations of iron were the cause of the discolored discharge Sunday into the Burns Waterway that closed beaches, shut down a nearby drinking water treatment facility and triggered sampling by local, state and federal officials.
"Preliminary sampling results have shown that we remain in compliance with numeric permit limits," U.S. Steel spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski said in a prepared statement Tuesday morning.
"There are no indications of permit level exceedances for hexavalent and total chromium, as those sampling results came in well below permit limits," she said. "The Midwest Plant was shut down as a precaution, and we continue to coordinate with agencies to collect additional samples to monitor the situation. We will provide more updates as they become available."
Portage Mayor Sue Lynch, who was the first to bring attention to the spill, told The Times she began receiving calls about 5:50 p.m. Sunday about an orange substance entering the Burns Waterway near a U.S. Steel facility outfall and traveling down the ditch toward Lake Michigan.
Lynch said she initially did not receive an immediate response from U.S. Steel or state and local environmental regulators.
The company said Monday it made all appropriate notifications to regulatory agencies, and some officials have been on site, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the U.S. Coast Guard and Porter County.
IDEM said Monday it expected water sampling results later that day and anticipated releasing more information about the nature and extent of the possible spill by Monday evening. Nothing had been released as of Tuesday morning, but the agency issued a statement saying, "We continue to await sample results taken by US EPA. Once the results are received and analyzed, we'll provide an update."
The U.S. EPA responded Sunday night to a request from Portage for assistance, an agency spokeswoman said.
The EPA said it was on site Sunday to conduct a visual inspection and take water samples and returned Monday. The agency said Tuesday it is still waiting for those test results.
"Once the results are received and analyzed, we’ll provide an update," a spokesperson said.
U.S. Steel announced Monday it shut down operations at its Midwest plant as a precaution, "after experiencing an upset condition with the finishing line wastewater treatment plant. The plant operations will remain down until the condition is stabilized."
Local testing had been pitched
Porter County Commissioner Jim Biggs, R-North, said Tuesday he made an unsuccessful pitch a year ago to have the county conduct regular testing of the waters in question due to past industrial spills.
This type of approach could catch spills that are not visibly apparent and a system would have been in place to more quickly respond when known problems do occur, he said.
"If we had our own program, we would have known by now," Biggs said of the pending results.
State Sen. Karen Tallian said her office was notified the spill was particles of iron, which is forged with iron ore in blast furnaces as a precursor to the production of steel.
"The situation is being monitored by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management along with local and federal partners," she posted. "We will pass along updates as we learn more."
The discoloration of the water in the ditch led the National Park Service to temporarily close all beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park to swimmers and the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, which is across the Burns Waterway from the U.S. Steel plant.
Indiana American Water said it shut down its Ogden Dunes treatment facility about 9:30 p.m. Sunday as a precaution. The company's Borman Park treatment facility in Gary remained operational and can handle all customers' water needs, a spokesman said.
Lynch said that all drinking water from Lake Michigan was now coming from the west and an employee at the Portage Marina also collected a sample of the water Sunday for analysis.
No effort was made to contain the spill with absorbent booms because the discharge already entered Lake Michigan before anyone realized it happened, Lynch said.
"It got out too quick," she said. "There were no booms put out because no one knew there was a spill."
Local plant has troubled past
U.S. Steel has agreed to pay about $3 million in recent years for wastewater permit violations dating back to 2013 at the troubled Portage facility, IDEM and court records show.
The apparent discharge Sunday fouled the waterway less than a month after a U.S. District Court judge granted the state and federal governments' request to approve a revised consent decree for U.S. Steel Midwest for wastewater violations.
The consent decree required U.S. Steel to pay a $601,242 civil penalty and more than $625,000 to reimburse various agencies for costs associated with their response in April 2017 after the facility spilled 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium — or 584 times the daily maximum limit allowed under state permitting laws — into the Burns Waterway.
U.S. Steel also agreed to pay about $600,000 for a three-year water sampling program along Lake Michigan's shoreline.
The consent decree addressed the April 2017 spill and other Clean Water Act violations dating back to 2013.
U.S. Steel said it voluntarily started to implement the consent decree in 2018. But the facility continued to violate its wastewater permit in 2018, 2019 and 2020, records show.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management adopted an agreed order in May that included a civil penalty of $950,000 for more than 25 permit violations at the facility from November 2018 to December 2020.
IDEM agreed to allow U.S. Steel to pay $650,000 toward the penalty and make a $600,000 payment to the Dunes Learning Center, instead of paying the remaining $300,000 civil penalty.