Safety floats block off a sewer drain into the Burns Waterway in Portage on Sept. 27, 2021. Staff photo Connor Burge, file, The Times
Safety floats block off a sewer drain into the Burns Waterway in Portage on Sept. 27, 2021. Staff photo Connor Burge, file, The Times
U.S. Steel says failure by a vendor to deliver sulfuric acid used for wastewater treatment is part of the cause for last week's spill from the company's Midwest plant that closed beaches, shut down a nearby drinking water treatment facility and triggered sampling by local, state and federal officials.

The company, which offered a detailed explanation for the spill in a letter to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, states there was no permit violation and "no visible adverse impacts to the environment, aquatic life or wildlife."

U.S. Steel said last week that elevated concentrations of iron were the cause of the discolored discharge into the Burns Waterway in Portage and down the ditch toward the nearby Lake Michigan.

Portage Mayor Sue Lynch, who was the first to bring media attention to the spill, told The Times she began receiving calls about the spill around 5:50 p.m. Sept. 26 and did not receive an immediate response from U.S. Steel or state and local environmental regulators.

U.S. Steel said IDEM notified it of the spill at 6:55 p.m. Sept. 26, followed by calls from the Indiana Dunes National Park and U.S. Coast Guard.

"An investigation into the matter was started immediately," company said.

U.S. Steel said in the letter it notified several federal, state and local entities and has since determined "there are different contributing factors to this event."

A decrease in sludge levels at the plant resulted in the need for acid to be added at the wastewater treatment plant to depress the pH, the company said. But when the operator went to add sulfuric acid, levels were too low for an adequate feed because a scheduled delivery a couple days earlier, "was not completed by the chemical vendor."

Acid was obtained from the plant's pickle lines, yet a lime feeder then became plugged and then it was realized that acid was being overfed into the system, the letter says. A blower used for aeration also failed at this time.

Once the acid flow was shut off and lime feeders restored, "the water within the Final Treatment Plant began to improve gradually until approximately 3:00 am CDT Monday (9/27/21) morning," the company said.

Portage industrial spill triggers call for improved state oversight

Yet the water started deteriorating again and operations at the plant were idled, according to the company. A delivery of sulfuric acid arrived the morning of Sept. 27 and the discoloration ceased at 3 p.m. or 24 hours after it started.

The Portage plant was back up and running by Wednesday morning, the company said.

The company said it intends to improve coordination for sulfuric acid deliveries, develop alternative sources for acid use in the wastewater treatment system and review internal operating communication procedures.

The Indiana Dunes National Park had reopened its beaches Wednesday.

Indiana American Water placed its Ogden Dunes treatment facility back in service Sunday, a week after taking it offline because of the discharge.

A coalition of entities with interests in the local shoreline of Lake Michigan called last week on state leaders to do more to protect the resource from industrial spills such as the U.S. Steel Midwest incident.

"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 Surfrider Foundation and Chicago filed a Clean Water Act citizens suit against U.S. Steel after an April 2017 spill and were granted permission to intervene in the government's consent decree case.

Robert Weinstock, an attorney at the University of Chicago Law School's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, represents Surfrider and said the foundation was discouraged to see yet another incident at U.S. Steel Midwest.

“The fact that this happened after the court entered the consent decree is only further proof that the consent decree doesn’t solve the problems at this facility,” Weinstock said.

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