Chicago gets say in US Steel rules

By Kevin Beese Staff Reporter

The US Steel Midwest Plant, a finishing facility that operates as part of Gary Works, is located about 10 miles east of Gary in Portage, Ind. (Photo courtesy of US Steel)

The city of Chicago is being allowed to be part of a lawsuit against an Indiana steel producer.

Magistrate Judge John Martin of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, ruled Dec. 13 that Chicago will be able to be part of consent decree negotiations with US Steel regarding the further protection of Lake Michigan.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Indiana have sued the steel company, citing US Steel for violations of the Clean Water Act at its Portage, Ind. facility, but for a narrower range of violations than Chicago and an advocacy group, Surfrider, are targeting.

“Chicago will not stand idly by while regulators in Washington are asleep at the switch,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. “Lake Michigan is our most precious natural resource, and we will stand up to preserve and protect it from polluters.”

The EPA argued that the just-completed public comment period for the consent decree could lead to a pulling of the decree, which would make Chicago and Surfrider’s efforts to further go after the company moot, cause a duplication of efforts and bog down the litigation.

“This ruling gives us a more powerful position to ensure the Trump EPA does not put interests of polluters before the interests of Chicago residents,” Emanuel said.

US Steel’s violations include, in April 2017, discharging 350 pounds of chromium — nearly 300 pounds of which was hexavalent chromium, a known cancer-causing agent, into the Burns Waterway, a small industrial ditch that empties directly into Lake Michigan. That discharge of chromium was 10 times the maximum legal limit. The discharge of hexavalent chromium was hundreds of times over the daily allowance.

Surfrider, a nonprofit organization that works on behalf of oceans, waterways and beaches — and has its own lawsuit against US Steel — said that the chromium discharge “and US Steel’s many other violations have occurred right next to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore at a beautiful spot frequented by surfers, fishermen, boaters and recreating families.”

A federal consent decree is being negotiated in an effort to stifle future violations. The steelmaker faces a proposed $601,242 settlement for Indiana and federal penalties related to the violations.

Surfrider called the proposed settlement “unconscionably low and cannot be expected to have any impact on how US Steel makes compliance and investment decisions in the future, or deter other industrial actors from violating the Clean Water Act.”

Surfrider leaders said US Steel could be fined more than $10.7 million for the violations.

The April 2017 discharge led to the closing of public drinking water intakes and public beaches, including the Indiana Dunes, according to Surfrider representatives.

US Steel has self-reported 32 violations of regulations since 2003. Of those violations, nine have been for exceeding the allowed chromium limit for the day, including four for exceeding the allowed hexavalent chromium limit for the day.

U.S. Judge Andrew Rodovich said in a separate ruling that both Surfrider and Chicago both believe that the company’s Clean Water Act violations “are more serious than they originally believed.”

City and Surfrider officials both fear that the consent decree will do little to improve US. Steel’s performance, Rodovich said.

“They have determined that the proposed consent decree will not adequately remedy US Steel’s CWA violations, does not correctly calculate the penalty given the actual levels of hexavalent chromium US Steel has illegally discharged, and will not require US Steel to correct its problems that caused its illegal discharges,” Rodovich wrote in a Dec. 7 opinion in the case.

In April, the steel company had been ordered to pay $900,000 for the violations. The consent decree would lower that judgment by nearly $300,000.

In April, the steelmaker said it would follow through on improvement plans.

“US Steel continually seeks opportunities for improvement in its environmental compliance program, and will apply lessons learned from this process to future operations company-wide,” the company said in a statement this spring.