Sierra Club — “New report: Northwest Indiana steelmaker knew of toxic cyanide spill, but failed to report”

Sarah Bowman, Indianapolis Star, October 25, 2019

A Northwest Indiana steel mill that killed nearly 3,000 fish in August knew it was releasing dangerous chemicals and failed to both report it and take immediate steps to mitigate it, according to a new report from the state environmental agency. 

At one point, the ArcelorMittal plant in Burns Harbor discharged cyanide that was detected at more than 25 times the permitted limit.

The Luxembourg-based company committed seven violations of its permit, according the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and what fines the steelmaker could face are now being determined.

ArcelorMittal said that it does “not necessarily agree with all of the facts or conclusions presented in IDEM’s report,” and it continues “to work cooperatively with IDEM and other regulatory authorities to address the water issues in the report.”

Documents obtained during IDEM’s investigation show that the Burns Harbor plant, which is the largest integrated steelmaking facility in North America, had a malfunction on Aug. 4, one week prior to the fish kill. 

That malfunction, which the company did not report to IDEM for days, likely caused a spike in ammonia-nitrogen seen in test results the next day. The spike — at 0.92 milligrams per liter — was nearly double the 0.52 allowed. The malfunction also damaged the battery system used to power the pump station for the blast furnace. 

Then on Aug. 11, the facility experienced a “catastrophic failure” in its blast furnace recycling system, which cools and reuses the blast furnace water to clean the furnace scrubber. The battery system, which had stopped recharging, wasn’t able to pump the water.

As a result of the failure, the pump station flooded with water. It also sent millions of gallons of wastewater — known to contain cyanide — to a wastewater treatment plant that was “not designed or equipped to treat Cyanide.” In other words, the Burns Harbor facility was releasing that cyanide as well as ammonia-nitrogren into the East Branch of the Little Calumet River.

The 200-page IDEM report said the releases “posed a significant danger to human health or the environment and constituted reportable spills.”

Based on its permit, ArcelorMittal is required to notify IDEM within two hours of discovering any potential release that could pose “significant danger to human health or the environment.” But Burns Harbor failed to provide timely notification, according to IDEM.

In fact, IDEM officials say ArcelorMittal did not share screening results that showed an issue with cyanide in the water coming into the treatment plant, despite IDEM inquiries on Aug. 12 and 14 about issues with wastewater discharges. One of the steelmaker’s environmental engineers actually suggested that other companies could be at fault, “without any evidence to support this theory,” according to IDEM. 

The company further did not take any steps to notify downstream users or to take immediate action to mitigate the adverse impact of the toxic pollutant discharge. It wasn’t until Aug. 15 that ArcelorMittal took responsibility for the fish kill and closing of beaches along Lake Michigan. 

steel mill. (Photo: Kelly Wilkinson / The Star 2012 file photo)

Various environmental organizations including the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Save the Dunes, Hoosier Environmental Council, Surfrider Foundation’s Chicago chapter, Indiana Wildlife Federation, Izaak Walton League and the Hoosier chapter of the Sierra Club issued a joint statement Wednesday, in which they called the report “shocking.” 

“The report reveals a remarkable level of disrespect on ArcelorMittal’s part for public safety, wildlife impacts, and IDEM’s regulatory authority,” says Bowden Quinn, director of the Sierra Club Hoosier Chapter. “I hope the department comes down hard on the company for this flagrant disregard of proper operating procedures.”

Howard Learner, executive director of ELPC, said that ArcelorMittal should be held accountable for violations beyond those that resulted in the August fish kill. That is why earlier this month, his group and the Hoosier Environmental Council served a 60-day notice of intent to bring a Clean Water Act enforcement lawsuit against the company claiming more than 100 permit violations

The steelmaker said in a statement that, “We take our compliance obligations seriously and are committed to working to regain the trust of the local community.” ArcelorMittal added that it is “working closely” with state and federal regulatory agencies to address the situation and to prevent its recurrence.

Still, some criticize the response from state and federal agencies. 

A couple weeks ago, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Surfrider CEO Chad Nelsen wrote that Indiana’s oversight of the ArcelorMittal spill and a 2017 U.S. Steel spill of hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan was lacking. 

“The State of Indiana issues these permits and is supposed to oversee compliance, and U.S. EPA is supposed to oversee the State of Indiana, but neither is sufficiently regulating the permittees to protect Lake Michigan, its beaches, and the public,” they wrote in a Oct. 14 letter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Environmental and Natural Resources Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and IDEM.

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