Oct 14, 2019
On August 11, ArcelorMittal’s giant Burns Harbor steel mill in Indiana released a plume of concentrated cyanide and ammonia into the Little Calumet River, which flows into Lake Michigan. For four days, the public was told nothing—until thousands of dead fish began floating past a crowded marina. Only then did officials shut off a nearby drinking water intake and close beaches.
It turns out that since 2015, this mill has violated clean water laws more than 100 times, releasing cyanide, ammonia, oil, and sewage sludge into the lake. Neither the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nor the Indiana Department of Environmental Management had done anything to stop this dumping. The non-profit Environmental Law and Policy Center is now threatening to sue, trying to force these regulators to do their jobs.
And this wasn’t the first time a steel mill got away with dumping poison in Lake Michigan. A similar investigation in 2017 found that U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant, just down the road, had dumped hundreds of pounds of highly toxic hexavalent chromium into the lake. When they reported one leak, U.S. Steel had the nerve to send a letter to the Indiana state agency responsible for ensuring water safety asking for “confidential treatment” of the information!
After another environmental law group threatened to sue, U.S. Steel wound up paying a fine of just $900,000—much less than it would have cost them to prevent the spills in the first place. So even when they were caught red-handed, they profited from polluting.
Lake Michigan provides drinking water to about seven million people in the Chicago area alone. By allowing these steel mills to get away with threatening our vital drinking water, the federal and Indiana governments make clear that in this system, the companies’ profits come before our lives.