U.S. Steel Plant Discharged Plume Into Water With Elevated Iron Levels, Beach Closures Remain

A discharge of elevated levels of iron from a U.S. Steel plant in northwestern Indiana caused an orange plume to enter a Lake Michigan tributary Sunday. The leakage spurred the closures of numerous nearby beaches as well as a water treatment facility.

Amanda Malkowki, a spokeswoman for U.S. Steel, said that upon analysis of the discharge in question, they discovered "elevated concentrations of iron causing the discoloration" in the Burns Waterway. The corporation did not disclose the severity of iron levels in the discharge, or whether it could be harmful to public health and the environment.

Indiana Dunes National Park on Sunday closed all of its beaches, as well as the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, as a precautionary measure until further notice. Indiana American Water closed its Ogden Dunes water treatment facility out of precaution.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.S. Steel Plant
A U.S. Steel plant in northwestern Indiana leaked an orange plume into a Lake Michigan tributary Sunday, caused by what the corporation said was a discharge with elevated levels of iron. Smoke pours from the United States Steel Corp.'s Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa, on July 14, 2010. Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

U.S. Steel idled the plant about 30 miles (48 kilometers) east of Chicago as a precaution after it said the wastewater treatment facility experienced "an upset condition" that sent the rusty colored plume into the waterway Sunday.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday that it was awaiting results from its own samples of the plant's discharge and would provide an update once those results are analyzed.

The EPA did not respond to a question from The Associated Press about what impact elevated iron levels could pose to humans, animals or the environment.

Gabriel Filippelli, a professor of earth sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, said the test results released by U.S. Steel were vague but that, "in general, iron itself is just kind of a nuisance rather than a contaminant that requires a significant amount of intervention."

With testing still underway, however, Filippelli said it remained to be seen whether the discharge could have contained toxic heavy metals such as mercury or lead, or other contaminants.

"Who knows what else it was carrying? Usually when you find iron you find some other nasty stuff," he said.

An Indiana Department of Environmental Management spokesman said Tuesday that the agency was investigating and would provide an update after it receives and analyzes sampling test results.

Neither the EPA, IDEM or U.S. Steel indicated if any type of cleanup was planned.

The discharge plant comes weeks after a federal judge approved a revised settlement with the company, more than four years after the Portage plant discharged wastewater containing a potentially carcinogenic chemical into the Burns Waterway.

U.S. Steel agreed to pay a $601,242 civil penalty and more than $625,000 to reimburse various agencies for costs associated with their response in April 2017 after the plant spilled 300 pounds (136 kilograms) of hexavalent chromium — or 584 times the daily maximum limit allowed under state permitting laws.

Malkowski said in Monday's statement that sampling of the discharge found "no indications of permit level exceedances for hexavalent and total chromium, as those sampling results came in well below permit limits."

She said preliminary sampling results showed that the Portage plant remains "in compliance with numeric permit limits."

U.S. Steel Plant Leaks Plume
Leakage from a U.S. Steel plant in Indiana spurred the closures of numerous nearby beaches, as well as a water treatment facility. A worker arrives for his shift at the U.S. Steel Clairton Coke Works in Clairton, Pa, on May 2, 2019. Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo