Wanted: Aggressive Lake Michigan protection

Wanted: Aggressive Lake Michigan protection

Environmental activists and particularly Chicago’s surfing community welcomed news this week that the city of Chicago is initiating legal action against a Lake Michigan polluter based in Indiana.

For years, surfers have traded stories of skin rashes and infections they blame on oil and chemical pollutants along the curved beaches of northwest Indiana. There, lake enthusiasts share a coastline with steel mills and oil refineries. Surfers know to follow certain protocols: Wear a wetsuit. Don’t swallow the water. Shower immediately afterward.

But they’ve also started asking questions. Their group, Surfrider Foundation, linked up with the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School. Surfers and law students began documenting and mapping illegal discharges into Lake Michigan, mostly based on companies’ self-reporting. In April — after U.S. Steel admitted its Portage, Ind., plant had released an alarming plume containing toxic hexavalent chromium into a ditch that drains into Lake Michigan — the group began to draw up plans to sue under the Clean Water Act.

“As we got further into it, the issues at the plant were not just a one-time thing,” said second-year law student Ben Segal who led the research project into lake pollutants this past summer. “The plant violated permits on a number of occasions.”

During a final comb of documents, law students found that the Portage plant reported another chromium spill that exceeded permitted levels in late October. The company asked Indiana environmental regulators to keep it quiet: “U.S. Steel requests that this submittal be afforded confidential treatment under all applicable statutes,” the company wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

And Indiana officials did keep it quiet — until Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne started calling. Why Indiana officials didn’t immediately notify the U.S. EPA of yet another illegal discharge is unclear.

A U.S. Steel spokeswoman said the discharge wasn’t serious enough to report to the feds and did not pose a threat to public health. In other words, move along. Nothing to see here.

The October spill pumped into the lake nearly double the amount of chromium allowed over a 24-hour period. We don’t know how much of it was the really bad stuff, hexavalent chromium. And neither does the EPA. It should.

The public was not informed and likely would not have known, if not for those diligent law students. On Monday, the city of Chicago sent a notice of intent to file its own federal lawsuit, also alleging violations of the Clean Water Act.

“U.S. Steel is committed to complying with all environmental standards, to ensuring the safety of our employees and our neighbors in the communities in which we live and operate, and to safeguarding our shared environment,” the company responded. “We take that responsibility very seriously and recognize this as a critical aspect of our role as a member of each community in which we operate.”

We’d like to take the company’s word for it, but documents uncovered by the law students show multiple violations of the company’s permits dating back several years. Both the April and October discharges occurred at the same sewer outfall. Because of that and the severity of the April spill, U.S. Steel should have notified federal officials of the second discharge. The public deserves to know. We’re dealing with drinking water.

We also have to ask: Where is Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb or Attorney General Curtis Hill on the company’s pollution record? Why is the city of Chicago taking a more aggressive posture than the state where the steel plant is located and the spills occurred?

“We will not stand idly by as U.S. Steel repeatedly disregards and violates federal laws and our natural resources,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement.

Yes. Underline that. The April plume caused beach closures and water intake centers to be shut down.

U.S. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt visited East Chicago earlier this year, promising a “back to basics” agenda at the EPA that would focus on clean air and water, despite budget cuts proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

Mr. Pruitt, book another flight. Companies that discharge into Lake Michigan should not get away with minimal — and secretive — reporting. Taxpayer-funded environmental protection agencies at the state and federal levels should not be in perpetual reactive mode. They have powerful tools of proactive enforcement at their disposal. They should use them.

Support the Will County News when you shop on Amazon

Leave a Reply