Waterflow swim in the Burns Waterway opposite U.S. Steel Midwest Plant in Portage on Monday. Staff photo by Connor Burge
Waterflow swim in the Burns Waterway opposite U.S. Steel Midwest Plant in Portage on Monday. Staff photo by Connor Burge
A coalition of entities with interests in the local shoreline of Lake Michigan are calling on state leaders to do more to protect the resource from industrial spills such as the one that occurred Sunday from the U.S. Steel Midwest plant in Portage.

"Based on the ongoing and chronic nature of industrial water pollution events along the shores of Lake Michigan, and in this case immediately following renewal of a wastewater discharge permit by the state and recent approval of a consent decree by a federal court, it is clear that Indiana’s system of water pollution control regulation is broken," according to a letter released by the coalition of more than 20 local and national entities.

The group is demanding heighten scrutiny and more vigorous enforcement against chronic polluters, a strengthening of pollution controls and communication requirements as part of pollution discharge permit renewals, more funding and better backing for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and a review of IDEM's pollution discharge permitting process.

"Once again, residents of the region find themselves reeling from a situation where there are more questions than answers," the coalition says. "Members of the public also find themselves shouldering the burden of sounding the alarm that our waters are being fouled, as it was regular people recreating in these waters who first noticed and reported this discharge."

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 did not receive an immediate response from U.S. Steel or state and local environmental regulators.

U.S. Steel has since said elevated concentrations of iron were the cause of the discolored discharge that closed beaches, shut down a nearby drinking water treatment facility and triggered sampling by local, state and federal officials.

Federal and state agencies said it does not appear the discharge posed any health risk to people who may have come into contact with the contaminated water.

"EPA's preliminary sample results also currently indicate that the discharge was below the numeric effluent discharge limits contained in US Steel’s NPDES (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System) permit," the EPA, U.S. Coast Guard and IDEM said.

UPDATE:
Water reopens; test results confirm iron in Portage industrial spill, officials say

"Federal and state agencies continue to investigate the matter to determine the cause of the discharge and possible Clean Water Act compliance issues, as well as environmental impacts and further actions that are necessary to ensure future compliance," the groups said.

The local Save the Dunes group, which is among the coalition members, said this spill is just the latest in a long string, "including the catastrophic release of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium by U.S. Steel in 2017, the cyanide and ammonia release and fish kill at ArcelorMittal (now Cleveland-Cliffs) in 2019, and hundreds of other events that occur with disturbing regularity."

"Since January 2017, U.S. Steel alone has been responsible for more than two dozen permit violations," the group said. "These water pollution events compound a long history of environmental impacts across Northwest Indiana .... Once again our beaches are closed, drinking water intakes shut down, and we are left asking why this keeps happening."

Others from the coalition include members of the Ogden Dunes and Michigan City municipal councils, Northwest Indiana Steelheaders, local chapters of the Izaak Walton League of America and the co-chairs of the Environment Committee Association of Beverly Shores Residents.

The coalition said, "Industry is undoubtedly important to the economy, providing jobs and other benefits to Indiana communities, but that cannot parlay into a free pass to pollute."

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