November 20, 2023
East Chicago, IN – The Environmental Law & Policy Center, Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), and other groups filed joint comments with Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) on November 16, 2023, requesting the agency toughen its water permit standards under the federal Clean Water Act as part of a 5-year permit renewal request submitted by Cleveland-Cliffs Steel for two manufacturing facilities located in Indiana Harbor on Lake Michigan.
Cleveland-Cliffs’ two steel mills there, which form a vast industrial complex spanning 2,600 acres along the Lake Michigan shoreline, discharge a combined average of 193 million gallons of wastewater each day. IDEM issues five-year permits that regulate pollution discharged through outfalls into public waters, and those industrial wastewater permits are currently up for renewal. ELPC, EIP and coalition partners submitted comments urging IDEM to use this opportunity to upgrade its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit standards in a number of important ways in keeping with its responsibilities under the Clean Water Act. The three main areas of concern focus on: disregard for environmental justice, outdated technology and requirements, and a harmful mercury variance.
“Northwest Indiana is proud of its steel history, but the mills’ pollution control technologies should not be stuck in the past,” said Mike Zoeller, Senior Attorney at ELPC. “IDEM needs to toughen water permits now so companies like Cleveland-Cliffs are compelled to modernize and reduce wastewater discharges that harm nearby residents and waterways.”
Specifically, the coalition calls for IDEM to consider the impact of Cleveland-Cliffs’ pollutant discharges on residents living in close proximity to the steel mills. An estimated 96% of residents living within a three-mile radius of the mills are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color, and 61% are low-income. The draft permits Cleveland-Cliffs filed with the state agency don’t mention affected residents or consider the impact on these communities. Discharge of solids, oil, and grease into Indiana Harbor and Lake Michigan exceed 5 million pounds a year – a level too high for a community already suffering higher exposure to numerous types of pollutants.
“The Environmental Integrity Project looks forward to working with IDEM to ensure that the revised permits are more protective of water quality and reflective of the vulnerable population living within the vicinity of the facilities,” said Lori Kier, Senior Water Attorney at EIP.
Additionally, IDEM should require Cleveland-Cliffs to upgrade its operations to reflect modern treatment technology. EPA regulations for the steel industry date back to the 1980s with minimal updates over the last 40 years. Water pollution control technology has advanced significantly during the last four decades and our understanding of pollutants has deepened.
Another major request the groups asked of IDEM was to eliminate permission for Cleveland-Cliffs to have a variance allowing the steel mills to discharge excess mercury into Lake Michigan without full consideration of impacts on public health and the environment. Mercury is highly toxic and accumulates in fish, affecting individuals who consume fish caught in those waters.