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Indiana steel mill violated Clean Water Act more than 100 times, say groups looking to sue

Environmental groups say they will sue a steelmaker over dozens of water quality violations, including a spill nearly two months ago at a northwest Indiana mill that killed nearly 3,000 fish and closed beaches on Lake Michigan and Indiana Dunes National Park.

The Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Hoosier Environmental Council last week served an intent to bring a lawsuit alleging more than 100 violations of the Clean Water Act against Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal. The steel and mining company operates the steel mill in Burns Harbor, which discharges its water into the Little Calumet River that flows directly into Lake Michigan. 

The groups allege that ArcelorMittal has violated its permit more than 100 times since 2015. The alleged violations include water quality violations by exceeding its permit limits for cyanide and ammonia, according to a release from the ELPC. 

The company saw exceedances of both chemicals on Aug. 11, when it experienced a power outage at a pump station for one of its blast furnaces. The Indiana Harbor Complex currently operates three blast furnaces and is the largest integrated steelmaking facility in North America. 

In this Star file photo, a woman walks along the beach on the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan, east of the Burns Harbor facility of ArcelorMittal steel mill.
Kelly Wilkinson / Star archive photo

ArcelorMittal did not report the incident until Aug. 15, two days after citizens first reported distressed and dying fish to the state departments of Environmental Management and Natural Resources. The company said that the first sampling for cyanide did not take place until two days after the outage, and the results were learned and then shared with state agencies after another two days. 

Still, neither the Indiana Department of Environmental Management nor the U.S. EPA has taken formal enforcement action against ArcelorMittal for the August spill or any of the other alleged violations, according to the notice. 

“In the face of this repeated, illegal damage to Lake Michigan, we can no longer just stand by and wait for the state and federal government to act,” said HEC Environmental Health and Water Policy Director Indra Frank. “The damage has to stop for the sake of everyone who gets their drinking water from the Lake; everyone who swims, fishes, or boats in the Lake; and the wildlife that make their home in the Lake.”

The company said it is unable to comment on the notice of intent to file a citizen suit, and that it continues to focus on compliance and reassuring community stakeholders that they are hearing and taking their concerns "very seriously," according to a statement from an ArcelorMittal spokesman.

ArcelorMittal continues to work with federal and state authorities including the EPA, IDEM, the state's Department of Natural Resources and others to address the issues and concerns arising out of the events that resulted in the August release, the spokesman said in his emailed statement to IndyStar. 

They also continue daily monitoring and reporting at the Burns Harbor site, which shows the company has been in compliance with its permit requirements since Aug. 17, he said. 

Under the Clean Water Act, citizens groups must give the polluter and regulatory agencies a 60-day notice of their intent to enforce the act. After that time, which will fall on Dec. 3 in this case, the groups may file suit in the U.S. District Court to require enforcement and stop the illegal pollution.  

Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at [email protected] or email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

IndyStar's environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.