Cyanide spill in Lake Michigan results in $3 million fine for steel mill owner

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BURNS HARBOR, IN – An Indiana steel mill owner will pay a $3 million fine and donate property for land conservation as part of a legal settlement following a spill of toxic chemicals that killed thousands of fish in a tributary to Lake Michigan.

On Monday, Feb. 14, Ohio-based Cleveland-Cliffs agreed to settle a lawsuit filed by two environmental groups over the 2019 spill, which dumped thousands of pounds of ammonia and cyanide into the waters around Portage, Ind.

The lawsuit was originally filed against ArcelorMittal, which Cleveland-Cliffs acquired in 2020.

This week’s consent decree, filed in U.S. District Court by federal and state officials, includes an agreement by the company to upgrade its facilities to prevent future discharge violations, improve procedures notice and transfer 127 acres of land for future conservation.

The settlement must be approved by a judge. It will be open for public comment for 30 days thereafter.

“This consent decree demonstrates our ability to hold polluting companies accountable for violating environmental laws and permitting requirements,” said Howard Learner, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center (EPLC) in Chicago.

The Chicago Policy Center has teamed up with Indianapolis’ Hoosier Environmental Council to challenge a multi-year pattern of illegal pollutant discharges at the Burns Harbor plant.

Their case was filed in December 2019 under a provision of the Clean Water Act that allows citizen suits. The groups are signatories to the consent decree, which was filed concurrently this week with a complaint from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). .

“We warn industrial operators that the waters of northwest Indiana cannot be polluted without consequence,” Lerner said in a statement.

About 3,000 fish died and nearby Lake Michigan beaches closed in August 2019 when the Burns Harbor plant lost power and released concentrated ammonia and cyanide-laden sewage into the East Arm of the Little Calumet River.

Officials say the plant’s blast furnace closed-loop air scrubber water recycling system failed, forcing the company to draw large volumes of water from Lake Michigan. and reject it through the outlets of the installation without being treated.

According to ELPC, the plant released cyanide at concentrations more than 1,000 times its allowable limits for three days before notifying regulators. Over 570 pounds of total cyanide and 5,200 pounds of ammonia were released in the spill.

Regulators and the company also came under fire after the spill because the public was not informed for several days.

The group has documented 81 examples of facilities exceeding the pollutant release levels allowed in its permit dating back to 2015. Regulators have not issued any violations despite the company failing to report multiple releases.

The US Department of Justice said the new ammonia and cyanide treatment systems at the facility “will significantly reduce the facility’s water pollution levels.” The company has until 2025 to install some of the upgrades.

“The cyanide and ammonia reductions will result in a cleaner Lake Michigan, and the public will be kept informed of potential future spills,” said Todd Kim, assistant attorney general.

The 127-acre property will be placed in a land trust. It is located south of the factory complex, between I-94 and the Dunes Highway in Burns Harbor. It adjoins the southwest stretch of the Indiana Dunes National Park property.

According to the consent decree, “a qualified land trust organization” will take possession of the property after an environmental site assessment for “permanent conservation protection and for use that has environmental benefits for the local community and the environment”.

Cleveland-Cliffs will also conduct bottom sampling on the Little Calumet River and Lake Michigan as part of the settlement and will reimburse $47,675 in state and federal response costs.

Cleveland-Cliffs specializes in iron ore mining and pelletizing in Minnesota and Michigan. It became the largest flat-rolled steel producer in North America with the acquisition of ArcelorMittal and AK Steel in 2020.

It made over $5 billion in revenue in 2021.

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