ELPC 30 years celebration

Cleveland-Cliffs' Burns Harbor steel mill, IN

Victory

Kiana Courtney

Victory! Settlement with Indiana Steel Mill will Protect Lake Michigan

ELPC & allies reach a consent decree to hold polluters accountable and protect the Great Lakes.

After an ammonia and cyanide spill killed 3,000 fish and closed Indiana beaches in 2019, ELPC and the Hoosier Environmental Council stepped up to protect Lake Michigan. We filed a Clean Water Act lawsuit against the steel mill responsible for the spill in Burns Harbor, formerly owned by ArcelorMittal now Cleveland-Cliffs. This month, we reached a successful settlement that will help hold these polluters accountable and prevent such a disaster from happening again. Here’s how we achieved this victory, and what this will mean for Great Lakes communities moving forward.

Read the Consent Decree

Watchdogs for the Midwest

Even before the infamous spill, ELPC had an eye on the steel mill in Burns Harbor, Indiana. We were concerned about how declining federal resources for environmental regulation and enforcement under the Trump administration might be affecting the Midwest. So ELPC reviewed and analyzed publicly available enforcement and compliance data going back to 2012. We discovered that shrinking funds and plummeting staff levels at EPA led to a decline in enforcement case initiations, penalties, and compliance costs, along with a corresponding rise in significant noncompliance with the Clean Water Act across the region. We found out that the Burns Harbor steel mill was one of many facilities in the Midwest that was polluting our water and getting away with it.

ELPC put out two reports in 2020 that detailed our findings in EPA’s Region 5 (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin) and Region 7 (Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, and Kansas). We featured several examples of facilities with multiple permit violations facing no formal enforcement, including a waste facility in Ohio, an abandoned mine in Missouri, and a food processing plant in Iowa. But before we could finish this region-wide research, we realized we needed to take action in Northwest Indiana.

Stopping a Serial Polluter

August 2019 was not the first trouble at the steel mill in Burns Harbor, Indiana. The facility reported over a hundred permit violations from 2015 to 2019, including total cyanide, free cyanide, and ammonia discharged into the Little Calumet River, which flows directly into Lake Michigan, putting the local ecosystem and communities at risk. However, neither the Indiana Department of Environmental Management nor the U.S. EPA took any formal enforcement action against the facility owners in all that time.

Arcelor Mittal reported over one hundred permit violations from 2015 to 2019, including total cyanide, free cyanide, and ammonia discharged into the Little Calumet River, which flows directly into Lake Michigan, putting the local ecosystem and communities at risk.

The spill of 2019, due to a failed blast furnace wastewater pumping station, led to the death of an estimated 3,000 fish and the closure of beaches along the southern coast of Lake Michigan, including at Indiana Dunes National Park. ELPC and the Hoosier Environmental Council filed a citizen suit, and many Great Lakes residents assumed that the facility would get its act together. However, the violations continued!

In May and June 2020, the steel mill failed its tests for chronic toxicity, putting waterways and Great Lakes communities at risk. Also, in June and continuing into July, the steel mill’s discharges repeatedly exceeded permitted ammonia limits. Clearly there were systematic issues going on. A slap on the wrist would not be enough to protect Lake Michigan, the facility had to be required to improve operations and fix the problems that led to such violations in the first place.

Successful Settlement

After two years of litigation, we ultimately teamed up with state and federal authorities to settle on one set of resolutions. Our case was crucial for pushing this issue forward with such urgency, and the ultimate result would not have been nearly so strong without our involvement. Here’s what’s in the final consent decree:

  • Injunctive Relief – While the term is wonky, this piece is incredibly exciting. Cleveland-Cliffs will be required to actually fix the problems that caused this disaster in the first place. They must invest in improving operations at the facility to prevent future spills, including a dedicated ammonia treatment system, the diversion of wastewater to a retention pond for treatment, and improved notification procedures.
  • Civil Penalties – Cleveland-Cliffs is required to pay $3 million in civil penalties, which will be split between Indiana and the U.S. Treasury. Penalties are an important component of environmental enforcement, helping to ensure that violators do not financially benefit from violating the law.
  • Supplemental Environmental Projects – Going beyond the facility itself, Cleveland-Cliffs will transfer some of its property to benefit the residents of the region. The land is adjacent to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and will be placed into a land trust until it can be deemed safe and potentially incorporated into the park. Cleveland-Cliffs will also conduct off-site water quality monitoring in the Little Calumet River and Lake Michigan and share the results online.

Most Great Lakes residents take clean water for granted, but our safety and our environment depend on strong protections and vigilant watchdogs who can step in to fix problems when they occur. We are heartened to see new leadership in Congress and at EPA, strong commitments to environmental regulation, and increased funding for essential enforcement. But the work is never done. ELPC will continue to hold elected officials and polluters accountable to protect the Great Lakes and the people who depend on them.

Kiana Courtney,

Staff Attorney

Kiana Courtney is a staff attorney at ELPC, working on clean energy and natural resources protection litigation, rulemaking, and policy.

MORE FROM Kiana Courtney