HAMMOND, Ind. (CN) – A group of surfers brought a federal lawsuit against U.S. Steel after two toxic spills of chromium in Lake Michigan last year shut down beaches, made water undrinkable and spoiled a favorite spot for Chicago-area surfers.
The Surfrider Foundation’s complaint filed in Hammond, Ind., federal court on Wednesday follows two notable spills in April and October 2017.
The April incident saw the highly toxic metal compound hexavalent chromium spilled into an area of Lake Michigan in Portage, Ind.
Chromium entered the lexicon after the biopic “Erin Brockovich,” starring Julia Roberts, detailed the devastating effects of the carcinogen on the residents of Hinkley, Calif.
Wednesday’s lawsuit – filed on the surfer group’s behalf by Mark Templeton and Robert Weinstock with the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic – alleges that U.S. Steel is violating the Clean Water Act and seeks an injunction, civil penalties and a declaration the company is also violating permit provisions to operate its plant safely.
Public records reveal an aging and broken infrastructure at the Midwest plant including broken pipes and corroded troughs, according to Surfrider’s complaint.
Last April’s spill dumped close to 350 pounds of pollution into the Burns Waterway, almost 300 pounds of which was hexavalent chromium.
In October, the company again discharged high levels of chromium into the water.
After the second spill, people surfed in an area of Lake Michigan adjacent to U.S. Steel’s Gary Works plant called the “Southend” because neither Indiana nor the company notified the public, according to the lawsuit.
U.S. Steel was quick to respond Wednesday and called Surfrider’s lawsuit “unnecessary.” It said it was already cooperating with regulators and was meeting or exceeding “all safety and environmental standards moving forward.”
“We installed a new wastewater piping system, eliminating the need for expansion joints like the ones that failed in April; we are redeveloping our comprehensive wastewater operations and maintenance plan; and we are evaluating the installation of an enhanced wastewater monitoring system to alert us of any potential incidents. Each of these items are being completed in consultation with government and regulatory agencies,” the company said in prepared statement.
Surfrider Foundation’s Chicago Chapter Chair Mitch McNeil said if regulators failed to take action then the group would continue to step in to protect the environment.
“When a corporation discharges massive amounts of water pollution into public areas that are popular spots for families and recreation on an ongoing basis, they need to be held accountable for it,” McNeil said in a statement on the Surfrider website.
The Southend spot is popular with surfers because of ample access to nearby bathrooms, showers and public parking. The surfers paddle out to Lake Michigan through the small waterway adjacent to the U.S. Steel plant and paddle west and east across the mouth of the waterway, directly in the path of storm and wastewater from the plant.
Surfers report that the water is sometimes dark brown and the air smells of “metal, sewage, petroleum, or a used ashtray,” the complaint states.
Amid health concerns, many surfers have abandoned the spot altogether. Prolonged exposure to chromium is known to cause lung cancer and asthma and surfers have reported bloodshot, itchy and infected eyes, sore throats, ear infections, flu-like ailments, and dermatitis, according to the foundation.
One surfer in his 30s has shingles in his eye and two other men reported urinary tract infections, the group says.
“Some Surfrider members persist in following their passion at Portage, but they constantly worry about their own health and that of the Lake ecosystem that many of them have enjoyed since childhood,” the 37-page lawsuit states.
Four public beaches closed after the April spill of chromium into Lake Michigan. The city of Portage draws drinking water from Lake Michigan and stopped using the water supply for almost a week, and Chicago registered heightened levels of hexavalent chromium in drinking water 20 miles away from the plant, according to the complaint.
“The weekend following U.S. Steel’s October 2017 illegal chromium discharge, surfing conditions on the Southend were among the best of the year. Surfrider members were surfing on the Southend that weekend and surfers were at Portage Lakefront, without any awareness of U.S. Steel’s illegal discharge,” the lawsuit states.
U.S. Steel allegedly failed to notify federal or state regulators that the discharge was more than daily maximum quantity limits of 20 pounds per day.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found out about the October spill only after a Chicago Tribune reporter contacted the agency for comment.
U.S. Steel has exceeded its daily discharge limits four times in five years, according to Surfrider.
Chicago has threatened to sue U.S. Steel after the two spills and asked the EPA to allow it to enter into settlement negotiations with the company.
In a Jan. 11 letter, the EPA Regional Director Cathy Stepp rejected the proposal and said the agency had already reached an agreement to resolve violations of the Clean Water Act.
“We believe that the compliance measures outlined in the agreement will go far in protecting Bums Harbor and Lake Michigan from unlawful spills,” Stepp wrote in the letter.
Chicago Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the city was not commenting on the EPA’s letter at this time.
In a phone interview, Surfrider’s attorney, Templeton, said that the EPA letter “failed to detail any aspect of that agreement” and that “U.S. Steel has never provided Surfrider Foundation with any information.”
“So all we have to go on is the record of the company’s repeated failures to comply with the Clean Water Act,” Templeton said.
Surfrider is not just representing the surfers who make use of the spot, Templeton added, but “the tens of thousands of people who use the Indiana beaches every year and the millions of people in the Greater Chicago area who rely on safe drinking water from Lake Michigan every single day.”
EPA Region 5, which serves Indiana, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.