The Surfrider Foundation, represented by the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago, today announced that it is suing U.S. Steel Corporation for repeated and ongoing violations of the federal Clean Water Act. The suit takes place after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) failed to take legal action within the 60-day notice period of Surfrider’s Notice of Intent to Sue to hold U.S. Steel accountable for pollution of Lake Michigan by its facility in Portage, Indiana.
The legal complaint from the Surfrider Foundation, on behalf of its Chicago Chapter, asks the court to order U.S. Steel to stop violating its Clean Water Act permit, including completing all actions necessary to ensure it stops discharging pollutants illegally into Lake Michigan. In addition, the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, presses for a significant financial penalty to deter future violations. Past violations include at least 90 days of self-reported pollutant discharge exceedances, more than 30 monitoring and reporting failures, and at least six maintenance violations during the past five years.
“At Surfrider, we work across the nation to protect clean water and healthy beaches,” said Mitch McNeil, Surfrider Foundation’s Chicago Chapter Chair. “When a corporation discharges massive amounts of water pollution into public areas that are popular spots for families and recreation on an ongoing basis, they need to be held accountable for it. If agencies fail to step in, then Surfrider will continue to step up and fight for our ocean, waves, beaches and planet.”
In April 2017, U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage illegally spilled nearly 350 pounds of chromium—almost 300 pounds of which were the highly toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich—into a small waterway that feeds directly into Lake Michigan. Publicly available documents show that broken and poorly maintained infrastructure allowed this spill to occur. The April spill is just one of several violations by the U.S. Steel facility in recent years, including additional illegal chromium exceedances such as one in October 2017.
“The lawyers and students of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic have worked with Surfrider since last April to determine the extent of U.S. Steel’s ongoing failures to comply with the Clean Water Act,” said Mark Templeton, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic. “It is the primary responsibility of state and federal regulators to protect the environment and public health. But, until and unless they are prepared to act, it falls to citizens, surfers, and students to hold companies such as U.S. Steel accountable for their violations of environmental laws.”
The Clean Water Act allows citizens and citizen groups to sue those who violate the Act. The Act requires citizens to provide a 60-day advanced notice to the polluter and the government before citizens can file their suit. Citizens can seek remedies such as monetary penalties and an injunction that requires the company to stop polluting and to change the practices that have led to the illegal discharges.
“We are hopeful that through our action, the court will require U.S. Steel to take all appropriate measures to correct its operational and maintenance deficiencies and will penalize the company sufficiently to ensure that it will stop its egregious pollution of Lake Michigan,” says Surfrider Foundation Legal Associate Staley Prom. “The Surfrider Foundation works to ensure clean water and healthy beaches so people can safely recreate and enjoy the Lake.”