Chicago intends to sue U.S. Steel

Chicago intends to sue U.S. Steel after 2 toxic spills this year, mayor says

Tony Briscoe, Michael Hawthorne Chicago Tribune

Chicago IL (11/20/2017) – Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Monday threatened to sue U.S. Steel after one of the company’s northwest Indiana plants spilled toxic metal into a waterway less than 20 miles away from one of the city’s Lake Michigan water intakes.

Emanuel’s decision to piggyback on a legal challenge filed last week by a University of Chicago law clinic is part of a concerted push by the Chicago Democrat to crack down on polluters as President Donald Trump moves to dramatically cut funding for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state enforcement efforts.

The Tribune first reported last week that U.S. Steel had requested “confidential treatment” from Indiana regulators after a wastewater treatment system malfunctioned Oct. 25 at its Midwest Plant in Portage, releasing 56.7 pounds of chromium into a waterway that drains into Lake Michigan. The amount spilled was 89 percent higher than what the plant is permitted to discharge over 24 hours.

It marked the second time this year that the plant exceeded legal limits on chromium, a toxic metal used to make steel alloys rust-resistant.

Flanked by environmental activists at a Sunday press conference, Emanuel condemned what he called a lack of transparency by the Pittsburgh-based company. He speculated that U.S. Steel’s attempt to keep the latest spill secret was part of a broader effort by industry and the Trump EPA to relax environmental regulations and cut back on enforcement.

“The silence from the Trump EPA has led the city of Chicago to sue and to also shake up and wake up the EPA to their responsibilities,” Emanuel said.

“It’s unacceptable and it’s not an accident that U.S. Steel did not report the incident to the EPA, because they think that, in fact, there is nobody there that they are responsible or accountable to,” Emanuel said. “Chicago will fight against that mindset.”

A statement released Sunday by U.S. Steel said the October mishap “did not pose any danger to water supply or human health.” The company noted it promptly told Indiana regulators about the incident.

“U. S. Steel is committed to complying with all environmental standards, to ensuring the safety of our employees and our neighbors in the communities in which we live and operate, and to safeguarding our shared environment,” the company said.

In April, fishermen spotted a bigger spill in Burns Waterway, a man-made slip that runs along the west edge of the steel mill and drains into Lake Michigan, prompting a high-profile response by emergency crews from the EPA’s Chicago office.

U.S. Steel later reported that 346 pounds of chromium had poured out of a rusted pipe into the waterway, including 298 pounds of hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic version of the metal made infamous by the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

A month later the company filed another report that estimated substantially more hexavalent chromium ended up in the waterway — 920 pounds — but it dismissed the finding as an “absurd result” from a single water sample.

It remains unclear how much hexavalent chromium was released in the October spill.

An EPA spokeswoman confirmed last week that Indiana regulators didn’t tell the federal agency about the latest spill until after the Tribune inquired about it.

Enforcement of environmental laws generally is handled by the EPA and state agencies. The federal Clean Water Act allows others to file legal challenges on their own but requires them to warn companies and regulators 60 days before filing suit.

The city’s notice to U.S. Steel, sent Monday afternoon, is based largely on similar action taken last week by lawyers from the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the U. of C. Law students dug through publicly available documents and found several violations at Portage plant since 2011, said Mark Templeton, director of the law clinic.

“This evidence shows that they are repeatedly violating the discharge limits imposed upon them and they are neglecting to properly maintain their facility, which could lead to … unlawful discharges in the future,” said Edward Siskel, Chicago’s corporation counsel.

Hexavalent chromium can cause stomach cancer. Studies show exposure to the toxic metal also increases the risk of reproductive problems, child development issues and liver and kidney damage.

Quarterly testing by the Chicago Department of Water Management shows levels of hexavalent chromium as high as 0.22 parts per billion in treated drinking water this year — 11 times higher than a health goal California officials adopted in 2009. But levels in Chicago and most other U.S. cities are below a controversial regulatory limit California later adopted: 10 parts per billion.

The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment defines the health goal, 0.02 parts per billion, as an amount that reduces the lifetime risk of developing cancer to a point considered negligible by most scientists and physicians. The state’s regulatory limit was adopted based on other considerations, including the added cost of water treatment.

Threatening to take legal action against U.S. Steel “puts people on notice” that Chicago will take steps to protect Lake Michigan, Emanuel said.

The mayor’s proposed 2018 budget calls for 10 new health inspectors funded by an increase in environmental fees and higher fines for companies that violate city codes. Emanuel pledged the added staff will help make up for cutbacks at the federal and state level.

tbriscoe@chicagotribune.com; mhawthorne@chicagotribune.com

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