by Victoria Wittig, Senior Program Specialist, Save the Dunes

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On the one year anniversary of a significant environmental pollution event, it is reasonable to anticipate that steps have been taken to prevent the pollution from happening again. So, where do things stand with pollution - and/or its prevention - from ArcelorMittal’s Burns Harbor facility on the shores of Lake Michigan?

First, a recap. It was just one year ago that a toxic ammonia and cyanide spill from the ArcelorMittal facility killed more than 3,000 fish, closed beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Park, shut Indiana American Water’s Ogden Dunes drinking water intake, and went on for multiple days before the public was notified.

So, where do things stand one year later?

As it stands, ArcelorMittal has continued to violate their National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit since the 2019 spill, including exceeding limits on ammonia in both June and July of this year. These recent exceedances go beyond inspection reports from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that outlined numerous other violations, including violations regarding how ArcelorMittal collected and reported data to IDEM.

Indeed, on August 12, IDEM issued an Inspection Summary/Noncompliance Letter to ArcelorMittal regarding unsatisfactory ratings for their self-monitoring program, flow measurements and laboratory evaluations. IDEM has instructed ArcelorMittal to correct these issues within 15 days of receipt of the letter including a written detailed response documenting corrective actions and/or a plan for assuring future compliance. IDEM has also forwarded these items to their Office of Water Quality's Enforcement Section for appropriate action.

In light of ongoing permit violations, what can we anticipate in terms of accountability for the August 2019 spill?

At this stage, we are all waiting on a Consent Decree – a legal agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice – that will outline consequences for ArcelorMittal’s 2019 spill. We have also learned that consequences for the ongoing permit violations will be added to the +100 violations at the facility that will be covered by the Consent Decree.

However, due to confidentiality requirements inherent to the legal processes associated with a Consent Decree, it is unclear how long it will take the wheels of justice to turn out a document for the public to review and comment on. It is likely that the Consent Decree will detail fines, but we do not whether this consequence will match the magnitude of the spill and ongoing violations. We also do not know if changes will be made to their NPDES permit, if any supplemental environmental projects in areas impacted by the spill will be required, or if there will be new requirements for ArcelorMittal to install improved pollution prevention technology at their aging facility whenever and wherever possible.

Creating A Culture of Pollution Prevention

With this in mind, Save the Dunes has been actively engaging in a larger conversation on how ongoing permit violations and the possibility of future spills are an inherent risk associated with heavy industry operating on our shores - there is a clear need to create a culture of pollution prevention in Northwest Indiana. We believe this goes beyond necessary enforcement action by IDEM and lawsuits by colleagues at the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Hoosier Environmental Council demanding that the Clean Water Act is upheld.

At Save the Dunes we are doing our part - virtually in a Covid-19 reality - by seeking answers to tough questions on how to create a culture of pollution prevention in our region that is inclusive for all stakeholders with funding support from the McDougal Family Foundation. We will also continue to keep you informed, including on when an opportunity arises to learn more about and/or comment on the Consent Decree.

Eager to play a role in the more immediate future?

Consider contacting your legislators to ask that more funding is earmarked for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to monitor and enforce environmental laws specifically in Northwest Indiana. Or donate now to Save the Dunes to support our efforts to hold polluters accountable. Together we will safeguard Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes!

This work was made possible by generous funding from the McDougal Family Foundation

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