Officials investigating spill from U.S. Steel into Burns Waterway

A rust-colored discharge from U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage is seen in Burns Waterway, which feeds into Lake Michigan. PORTAGE MAYOR SUE LYNCH/photo

A rust-colored discharge from U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage is seen in Burns Waterway, which feeds into Lake Michigan. PORTAGE MAYOR SUE LYNCH/photo

Officials are waiting on additional test results after elevated concentrations of iron from U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage caused a discoloration in Burns Waterway earlier this week that forced the shutdown of the steel mill, an Ogden Dunes water intake facility and beaches within the Indiana Dunes National Park.

Officials with the City of Portage were first made aware of the rustcolored liquid around 5:30 p.m. Sunday, when Portage Mayor Sue Lynch said she received pictures of the spill from a boater.

“I thought, ‘Here we go again,’ but it’s different. Whatever this is, is different from what it was” in April 2017, Lynch said, when the plant leaked the carcinogen hexavalent chromium into the waterway.

Lynch said she doesn’t understand the plant’s fail-safe mechanism, because so much of the rust-colored discharge was released into the waterway.

“It must’ve come out pretty quick,” she said, adding there was no new discharge when she went to the site Tuesday “but the north wind is keeping the plume close to the shore.”

For now, Lynch said the city is “playing the waiting game like everybody else” until test results come in. “What if it was a highly toxic spill?” she added.

Indiana American Water shut the Ogden Dunes facility Sunday evening as a precautionary measure, according to a spokesman. The water utility provides service to Duneland and several other Northwest Indiana communities.

“Indiana American Water performs continuous real-time monitoring at our Ogden Dunes treatment facility, and although we have seen no impact on the raw water parameters we are monitoring for at this location, the treatment plant will remain offline until such time as additional data and water testing results confirm there is no threat to the company’s water source at this location,” company spokesman Joseph Loughmiller said in a release.

The Borman Park water treatment facility, located in Gary, remains in service and is able to provide adequate treatment capacity to meet customer needs for the region, he added.

The utility is waiting on water sampling results before the Ogden Dunes facility is placed back in service, Loughmiller said, adding that was expected to occur Wednesday at the earliest.

Analysis of the water from the outfall from U.S. Steel into Burns Waterway, which feeds into Lake Michigan, showed elevated concentrations of iron caused the discoloration, according to spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski.

“Preliminary sampling results have shown that we remain in compliance with numeric permit limits,” she said, adding there are no indications of exceeding permit levels for hexavalent and total chromium “as those sampling results came in well below permit limits.”

Lynch wanted to know whether samples were taken when the release was reported or after it had already been diluted in Burns Waterway. She also wants to wait on results from other agencies that took samples.

“I don’t know when U.S. Steel took their samples,” she said. “I guess my concern is, if it gets so diluted, it could be within your parameters.”

The Midwest Plant was shut down as a precaution, Malkowski said, “and we continue to coordinate with agencies to collect additional samples to monitor the situation.”

Malkowski had earlier said that the discoloration in the waterway was caused by “an upset condition with the finishing line wastewater treatment plant” at the plant. Early indications showed “higher than normal suspended solids in the water.”

Indiana Dunes National Park closed all of its beaches and the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk on Sunday after learning of the recent spill. While the beaches remain closed, Bruce Rowe, a supervisory park ranger and public information officer for the park, said beach parking lots, including Portage Lakefront, had reopened as of Tuesday.

“We have a ranger doing roving contacts at Portage Lakefront to make sure people stay out of the water,” he said.

“IDEM continues to investigate this incident,” Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokesman Barry Sneed said in an email. “IDEM staff on site have not observed any dead fish or other wildlife.”

The state agency expected to issue more information after it received and analyzed the results from sampling done at the site.

An official with the EPA, which also is investigating, did not return a request for comment.

A hexavalent chromium discharge in April 2017 from the plant into Burns Waterway generated a similar response from the mill, the national park and the water utility. A smaller leak of chromium occurred about 6½ months later.

That discharge, caused by a pipe malfunction, led to a consent decree finalized in early September. That called for U.S. Steel to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the State of Indiana and federal agencies including the National Park Service and the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as invest $600,000 over three years on water quality testing.

The consent decree was approved by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana in Hammond.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *