The Indiana Department of Environmental Management is investigating a chemical release into the Little Calumet River mid-August that killed fish and led to the shutdown of parts of the Indiana Dunes National Park.
IDEM said a steel plant belonging to Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal released cyanide and ammonia beyond permitted limits, causing the deaths of hundreds of fish.
The National Park Service closed the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk beach area plus water out to 300 ft. at Indiana Dunes National Park. Portions of the Little Calumet River between Highway 149 and 249 have been closed, while trails in the area remain open.
ArcelorMittal has apologized and accepted responsibility for the chemical releases. The company said a failure at the blast furnace water recirculation system led to the release of wastewater containing elevated levels of ammonia and cyanide.
The company said it will take daily water samples from two outfalls where the system empties into the Little Calumet River and would also conduct daily downstream sampling every quarter mile for 2.5 miles of the river and the lakeshore from Porter Beach to the westernmost part of West Beach
“The events of the past week at Burns Harbor have concerned us all and we have been making every effort possible to address the situation and return to compliance since we became aware of the issue,” the company said in a statement. “We will be working hard now and in the future to restore confidence in our ability to comply with all of our environmental requirements and restore trust among all of our stakeholders, which we understand will take time.”
The company said ammonia levels are within permitted levels and cyanide levels are “significantly below the levels experienced during the initial release.”
The company said it will post testing results on its website in the future.
At least one elected official in the area said he was not informed about the spill for several days.
Portage, Indiana, mayor John M. Cannon said IDEM knew about the release several days before Portage officials were notified.
“While reports show many, including IDEM, knew of the concerns as early as August 12, 2019, the City of Portage was not informed of this concern until August 15, 2019,” the mayor’s office said in a statement. “Mayor Cannon holds ArcelorMittal responsible for this event, and also parts blame to IDEM for not informing the City of Portage until several days after the first incident. The mayor is calling for action to be taken. Further, the City of Portage will be taking aggressive action with the EPA to ensure the breakdown of communication, like this, does not occur again.”
In a statement to the Indiana Environmental Reporter, IDEM said it received a citizen complaint of distressed fish in the East Arm of the Little Calumet River on Aug. 12. IDEM said it and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources investigated and observed one distressed fish.
The next evening, IDEM received complaints about the presence of numerous dead fish. On Aug. 14, IDEM and IDNR “conducted reconnaissance” and found that a significant fish die off had occurred, although the cause of the die off was still unknown.
IDEM said it was notified by ArcelorMittal on Aug. 15 that it had violated its daily maximum limit for total cyanide. The agency said it then alerted local media, environmental organizations and local officials, including the mayor or Portage.
IDEM documents show the department has cited the Burns Harbor facility for several violations in the past.
An inspection in 2016 found several violations of air emissions regulations. Inspectors found that particulate matter emissions from several sources exceeded the amount allowed by law.
The company was issued a $6,250 civil penalty.
On Feb. 26, 2019, the ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor was sent a letter informing the company that after one inspection in December 2017 and four inspections in 2018, inspectors found that sludge from a secondary waste water treatment plant was stored in two unlined sedimentation pits outside an area used for storage. That violation of the Indiana code created “a threat to human health or the environment.”
The company was ordered to correct the violation, which it did.
During an inspection Aug. 6, IDEM inspectors found no violations.
According to IDEM, Indiana American Water, which provides the area’s drinking water, said it has reduced water flow into the facility but has seen no impact on raw water parameters it is monitoring at the Ogden Dunes treatment facility.