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November 21, 2017

University Law Clinic to Sue U.S. Steel over Chromium Dumping Violation

The City of Chicago and the University of Chicago Law School’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic plan to sue the U.S. Steel Corporation over its violations of the Clean Water Act, as the company dumps hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan via the Burns Waterway in Indiana.

Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel declared yesterday that the City will be piggybacking onto the Law Clinic’s pending lawsuit against U.S. Steel, which was announced in a notice of intent to sue sent to U.S. Steel on November 13. The Law Clinic is representing the Surfrider Foundation, a group whose members surf in the area of Lake Michigan into which the Burns Waterway flows. Pollution from U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage, Indiana, is adversely impacting the members of the Surfrider Foundation, according to the Law Clinic’s notice of intent to sue.

This is not the first time that U.S. Steel has come under scrutiny for chromium dumping at the Midwest Plant. In April 2017, the company discharged an amount of chromium far higher than the legal limit of 30 pounds per day. Neither the company nor environmental regulators were the first to divulge this information to the public. Instead, the National Park Service warned residents not to visit the lake through a press release. Then, from 7 a.m. on October 25 to 7 a.m. on October 26, U.S. Steel released 56.7 pounds of chromium into Lake Michigan. According to a letter sent by the company to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) on October 31, Indiana officials were not notified until October 27, the following day.

According to Robert Weinstock, a lecturer in law at the Law School and the Abrams Environmental Law Fellow, members of the Surfrider Foundation approached the Law Clinic a year ago because they were concerned about what was in the water where they surf in Indiana. After the April spill, the Law Clinic began focusing more intently on U.S. Steel than they did on other companies in the area.

Students in the Law Clinic discovered the letter while they were tracking pollution violations at factories on Lake Michigan’s southwest shore just before the notice of intent to sue was sent to U.S. Steel. The document, which asks for “confidential treatment under all applicable statutes” from Indiana officials, is a key piece of evidence that the Law Clinic will use during its upcoming lawsuit against U.S. Steel for continuously violating the Clean Water Act over the past five years.

The letter was a “jarring revelation, because U.S. Steel publicly stated that they were resolving their issues,” Weinstock told The Maroon. The company’s request to treat the letter confidentially was “particularly disturbing given all the public attention on U.S. Steel,” Weinstock stated.

According to Weinstock, the timing of the letter was concerning, as was the state of Indiana’s response. While the letter was posted on the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s database and publicly available, U.S. Steel and IDEM did not notify the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the general public. The weekend following the chromium discharge was one of the best surfing weekends, and “dozens” of surfers were in the water, ignorant of the contamination, according to Weinstock.

A host of side effects are associated with hexavalent chromium. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) states that exposure to the compound can lead to “nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, and eye irritation and damage.” According to the Scientific American, NTP scientists also report that the compound can be carcinogenic when consumed. A study done by the NTP shows that after drinking water containing doses of hexavalent chromium, mice and rats contracted malignant tumors in their mouths and small intestines.

The exposure of Indiana citizens to the compound “hammered home just how much needs to be done to hold U.S. Steel accountable and how much we need strong action, transparency, and oversight from regulators,” Weinstock said. He believes that the problems at U.S. Steel are driven by measures to reduce expenses that involve laying off maintenance workers.

“What I don’t want to get lost in all of this is that the corporate strategy of cost-cutting was at the expense of both the plant’s workers and public health and environment,” Weinstock said.

This mirrors the City’s intended lawsuit, believed to be a move to crack down on polluters following President Donald Trump’s funding cuts to the EPA and state regulatory enforcement officials. “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 at a press conference on Sunday.

In a statement released to The Chicago Tribune on Sunday, U.S. Steel said the chromium release in October “did not pose any danger to water supply or human health.”

“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.

Correction on Nov. 21, 2017, 12:02 p.m. CST:

This article originally misquoted Weinstock's description of the number of surfers present during the weekend after the October chromium discharge.

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