A U.S. Steel plant in Northwest Indiana was barely three weeks into a federal agreement requiring it to improve its environmental compliance when it began discharging iron into Lake Michigan on Sunday, interrupting drinking water processing and forcing Indiana Dunes National Park to close its beaches.

On September 2, the Environmental Protection Agency placed the U.S. Steel Corporation’s operation in Portage, Indiana, under a federal consent decree, a court-enforced agreement requiring the plant to improve its environmental impact. The agreement, spurred in part by a 2017 wastewater spill into Lake Michigan, cost the company $1.2 million in fines and cleanup costs.

During the 2017 spill, 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium — which can severely irritate the nose, throat, and lungs — were dumped into the water. That’s 584 times the amount of the substance that the state allows to be discharged. The consent decree also addresses multiple Clean Water Act violations dating back to 2013. 

However, just 24 days after the court approved the deal, the company was once again contaminating the sixth-largest freshwater lake in the world, which provides more than 6.6 million people with drinking water. For multiple hours, a rusty orange substance leaked out into the lake’s water. The spill eventually created a thick dark puddle in the middle of the lake, causing some residents to believe it was oil. 

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Within hours, the Indiana Dunes National Park closed its beaches and the local water utility was forced to shut down its processing facility. Both remained inoperable as of Tuesday morning. 

Preliminary sampling results released Tuesday by U.S. Steel revealed the primary component of the spill: iron. While it is still unclear what caused the release or how much iron was discharged, elevated levels of iron in drinking water can lead to iron poisoning which can cause stomach pain and damage to the brain and liver. According to U.S. Steel spokeswoman Amanda Malkowski, however, the preliminary results showed that U.S. Steel remained in compliance with the limits its government-approved permits place on how much of the substance it can discharge. This claim has been neither confirmed nor denied by state regulators.

Barry Sneed, a public information officer for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, told Grist that staff on site had not observed any dead fish or other wildlife. Sunday’s discharge took place near a cluster of factories just southeast of Chicago, including another steel plant and a coal-fired plant, where several aquatic and bird species are also found. 

“This is not the first time US Steel has spilled waste into Lake Michigan,” U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, who represents Illinois, wrote on Twitter. “These incidents are unacceptable and doing great damage to this precious resource.”

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On Monday afternoon, Portage Mayor Sue Lynch acknowledged the “conundrum” the local community faces in weighing both the company’s economic value and its harm to the local environment. As of December 2020, U.S. Steel — the country’s second-largest steel producer — employed 3,600 workers at its Portage facility. Since 2015, however, the plant has seen a roughly 40 percent drop in total employment due to controversial layoffs. The company has also been accused of maintaining poor COVID-19 precautions, with hundreds of confirmed cases emerging from its facilities in the region last year.

The consent decree was supposed to better regulate the company’s environmental actions and limit noncompliance, but Sunday’s spill threatens to undermine faith in the agreement. In total, the company has paid roughly $3 million for similar spills and wastewater permit violations since 2013. 

“They couldn’t care less if they close down and be fined billions of dollars,” Ray Thilmont, a Portage resident, told the Northwest Indiana Times on Monday. “They should close that place and close it now.”

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