A complaint led state inspectors to find multiple violations in water sample collection and handling procedures at a steel mill that released cyanide and ammonia into a river in northwestern Indiana in 2019 and at a laboratory contracted by the mill and the state to test water samples.
Indiana Department of Environmental Management inspectors found multiple violations of a state-issued National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit for the ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor, LLC steel mill and multiple violations of federal pollutant testing procedures at the Microbac Laboratories Inc. lab in Merrillville.
ArcelorMittal, the Luxembourg-based steel corporation that owns two steel mills in Indiana, admitted to discharging excess levels of cyanide and ammonia into the Little Calumet River in August 2019. The violation resulted in the killing of thousands of fish and the closure of public beaches on Lake Michigan.
The company will now have to prove that it made the corrections listed in the inspection report and submit future compliance plans.
IDEM inspectors visited the Microbac facility in Merrillville June 22 and found multiple violations of federal guidelines that establish test procedures for pollutant analysis. The violations could have skewed analysis results.
A lab employee measured the temperature for one water sample and recorded that temperature for more than 60 samples, even though the samples were from three different coolers from three different days.
Insufficient glassware cleaning at the laboratory may have affected the accuracy of testing results. One water sample that indicated excess cyanide levels during the inspection was attributed to dirty glassware used in the analysis.
Machines used to analyze water acidity were not calibrated at the rate required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Inspectors also found a break in the water sample chain of custody. Although lab employees were at the steel mill seven days a week, samples taken over the weekend were not signed over to the lab until Monday morning.
The samples were stored in refrigerators without thermometers, making it unclear whether the samples were stored at temperatures needed for reliable analysis by the lab.
The inspectors gave the lab procedures an “unsatisfactory” rating, the agency’s lowest.
IDEM then inspected the ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor steel mill July 15 and found violations of its NPDES permit, which allows the company to discharge pollutants into waterways.
The inspectors found the facility was not collecting effluent samples as outlined in its permit.
The chief of IDEM’s NPDES Compliance Branch, Jason House, wrote to the company a week after the inspection.
“As you are aware, IDEM and AMBH have communicated regarding the proper sampling of cyanide and phenols at the applicable outfalls of your facility. AMBH has not provided IDEM with sufficient written justification and rationale to allow for an alternate approach to obtain 24-hour flow proportioned composite samples for phenols and cyanide. Therefore IDEM is requesting AMBH to immediately begin collecting 24-hour flow proportioned composite sampling as outlined in NPDES Permit No. IN0000175,” House wrote.
In the report released August 12, IDEM gave the company an “unsatisfactory” rating for its Self Monitoring Program due to violations of its permit.
The company also received an “unsatisfactory” rating for its flow measurements.
Neither ArcelorMittal nor Microbac Laboratories have responded to requests for comment.
The August report is the latest in a series of IDEM inspections that have found multiple violations in both the steel mill and the lab testing the mill’s effluent samples.
In January, ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor denied manipulating data after an IDEM inspection found the company would order samples that indicated excess pollution to be reanalyzed. The new results would then be used to replace the initial finding.
“ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor has established a practice of reanalyzing samples in cases in which initial sample analysis, which passes all quality assurance/quality control checks, indicates a permit effluent exceedance, and using the results of the re-analysis to re-calculate or replace results, including those already reported to IDEM. ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor has not provided an explanation for this practice,” the report stated.
The company has said it has a “track record of providing accurate sampling data” to regulatory agencies.
In May 2019, Arcelor Mittal was sued by the federal government and the states of Indiana and Ohio for violating the Clean Air Act. The suit alleged that, among other things, the company violated numerous monitoring, recordkeeping and reporting requirements.
The company entered into a consent decree, agreeing to pay more than $5 million in state and federal penalties and to develop and implement procedures to reduce emissions at the facility.
ArcelorMittal is facing at least one lawsuit in Indiana over its pollution and violations of reporting requirements.
After the January 2020 report was released, IDEM conducted a “reconnaissance inspection” in February at both the mill and the lab. Inspectors found multiple deficiencies, including “unsatisfactory” testing procedures for multiple pollutants such as cyanide, phenols, chlorine and zinc.
“Note that an issue underlying several of the deficiencies is the practice of taking one large sample container to the lab, unpreserved, which is not acceptable for parameters such as Cyanide, Total Phenols, Dissolved Iron, COD, and Ammonia, which must be analyzed or preserved, immediately, defined as no more than 15 minutes after sample collection, to meet the [federal requirements],” the inspectors wrote.
Some of the deficiencies found in February were found again in June and July.
It’s unclear whether the testing practices and protocol violations found by IDEM inspectors at the Microbac Laboratories lab extend to testing of other sites.
IDEM has contracted Microbac Laboratories for analytical lab services since at least 2009. Its current contract is set to last until Jan. 1, 2022, but could be terminated earlier.
Microbac Laboratories Inc., which runs 29 labs across the U.S., has faced several fines and lawsuits related to its testing practices.
In 2014, British insurance company Lloyd’s of London sued Microbac, claiming the company and other parties “conspired in fraudulently misrepresenting certain water testing results” at a fracking site in Pennsylvania. The case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning the case could be refiled.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined Microbac $125,000 in 2015 for violations at the company’s Center Valley, Pennsylvania, lab, finding numerous violations during a data review of microbiological testing areas of the lab. The DEP found that the lab’s management was not providing adequate oversight and training of microbiology personnel.
The lab voluntarily relinquished all its accreditations.
Prime Foods LLC, a Booneville, Indiana-based company that sells eggs and egg products, sued Microbac in 2018 for more than $75,000. Prime claimed Microbac tested its products for salmonella and other bacteria, repeatedly assuring Prime’s leadership that the products were free of the harmful bacteria. The products were shipped to Meijer Inc.’s Central Kitchen in Middlebury to be used in various products produced by Meijer.
Two weeks after the shipment, Microbac told Prime that 192 cases of eggs were actually positive for salmonella.
The finding led to a recall of Meijer products produced with Prime egg products. Meijer entered into arbitration with Prime, costing the egg-manufacturer more than $350,000 in costs and fees.
Microbac and Prime agreed to dismiss the case.
IDEM has not said whether it would reconsider its agreement with Microbac.
IDEM responded to the Indiana Environmental Reporter.
The agency said it does not administer a laboratory accreditation program for water testing.
"NPDES permit holders are obligated to conduct monitoring in accordance with their NPDES permits, using approved analytical methods found in the federal regulations at 40 CFR 136. The Indiana State Department of Health administers a drinking water laboratory certification program," the agency responded.
The agency commented on whether it would reconsider its agreement with Microbac.
"IDEM has contracts with multiple labs and takes all circumstances into consideration when utilizing lab services," the agency wrote in an email.