L. Michigan’s Southend: A History of the Chicago Chapter’s Water Quality Campaign to Clean Up the Lake’s Southend.

Some, or most, of you have seen the headlines, and are following the big story: Surfers Sue US Steel, or U of C and Surfrider Team Up Against US Steel, and so on. Lots of ink, and some real eye-openers for sure, but these events did not transpire overnight. The fact that these things are happening at all is due to some very careful groundwork laid many months prior. Hence, some necessary back story to impart … (for those who want to know)

Being a long time L. Michigan surfer, I’ve mostly hunted waves up north, (near Muskegon MI) where my family has spent time in the summer. I rode my first Lake wave standing up in ’68, a squirrelly 12 year-old pumped up on Beach Boys imagery, enhanced by a theatrical showing of Endless Summer. I was hooked. Who wouldn’t be?

For the last 27 years I’ve been a Chicago-area resident, acclimating to this new part of the Lake, which local surfers call the southend. If you live here and want surf, you head south to Indiana - or north, where there’s a Wisconsin pilgrimage awaiting those adventurous to cross the state line. Pre-information age, I knew no other surfers locally. I was a lonely loner, figuring out where to go, like a blind man groping along the lakeshore, paper road map in hand. 57th St was my first discovery. Then about five years later, word-of-mouth pointed me to Whiting, Indiana, where Whihala beach offered several spots to surf. I was starting to meet other surfers, there was now email, and Google satellite maps, and then social media exploded the communication possibilities. Voila! We were all connected.

Before this process of NW Indiana discovery, I had always considered the Lake’s water to be cleansing. With that basic mindset, it was no wonder I was lax about showering a couple times after surfing the southend. The first time I forgot, Pam looked at me during dinner later that night and said, “What’s wrong with you? You’re all broken out … hives?” Look in the mirror. Recoil in horror. Could it be the water? I was definitely acclimating to a new type of lake water: cloudy, turbid, stuff in it, sometimes a faint oily sheen/smell, with an unappetizing gray-brown color. In a region dominated by industry, I chalked it up to this manmade environment impacting the water - the price we pay, and the deal we make for waves. At least I wasn’t swallowing the stuff. (Not much, at least).

With my curiosity piqued, I began to exchange stories with other surfers, and a pattern emerged: most of them had suffered at least minor physical symptoms from surfing in NW Indiana. Some of the stories featured conditions that were not minor, like nasty infections. A few guys even ended up in the hospital. What was going on here? What’s in that water?

Meanwhile, in 2009, I was one of a small group of surfer/activists who volunteered to put our free time on the line, and commit to forming a Chicago chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. Originally coalescing around the issue of beach access for surfers who were “breaking the law” in the city’s eyes (flotation device ban) – and, as result, getting detained by the authorities, the chapter made strides in helping negotiate a relaxing of the rather soul-crushing regulations, and surfers suddenly had some legal options for surfing the city’s waves. After that, other issues cried out for attention: single-use plastic awareness, beach clean ups, micro-bead pollution, more access problems, oil pipelines at the Straits … there was always work to do. But as I scanned the region’s horizon, what could be more pressing than surfers getting sick from being in the water? Why else does Surfrider exist?

This concern led the chapter to embark on a Southend Water Quality Campaign, aimed at bringing awareness to the degradation of the southend by industries surrounding the lake, advocating for strong enforcement and compliance with existing laws, including the Clean Water Act, and ultimately reducing pollution to Lake Michigan and its regional tributaries.  We connected and began working with the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic. As a starting point, together, the clinic and Surfrider investigated and accumulated available data to learn (1) who along the Northwest Indiana industrial corridor is discharging into the lake, (2) what they are putting into the water, (3) how often they are violating applicable laws, and (4) what kind of consequences violators have been facing for exceeding legal limits.

From there my mission was to take all the sources of data, and accumulate and organize all that into an infographic map (below) that was user friendly and easy on the eyes (something the EPA site from which we gathered information was NOT). Retreating to my design laboratory, I hopped on the EPA site, and then used the site’s data to create the map.

While continuing to investigate the status of operations and Clean Water Act compliance along the southend, this campaign took on a new level of urgency a few months later when US STEEL spilled around 350 pounds of chromium – nearly 300 pounds of which were highly toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium - into a small waterway that feeds directly into Lake Michigan. With our Southend Water Quality Campaign underway, driving our passion to reduce pollution in the region, and with members who use and enjoy recreating at the affected area, we had to take action.

Therefore, in November of 2017, Surfrider Foundation, represented by the Abrams Clinic, sent our Notice of Intent to sue U.S. Steel. Surfrider’s notice made headlines, appearing in the Chicago Tribune and other national and regional media outlets, and even prompted the City of Chicago to send a similar Notice of Intent to sue, incorporating and explicitly relying upon Surfrider’s notice. Then, following the required 60-day notice period, and after the U.S. EPA and Indiana Department of Environmental Management failed to take enforcement action against U.S. Steel within the notice period, we followed through on our notice and filed suit. One week later, the City of Chicago followed our lead and did the same.

Surfrider’s lawsuit is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, Hammond Division, and asks the court to order U.S. Steel to stop violating its Clean Water Act permit, including an order to complete all actions necessary to ensure it stops discharging pollutants into the water in violation of its permit, and for heavy penalties against the corporation for its numerous violations.   

Surfrider is committed to taking action to protect the places and resources we love.  Our lawsuit and Southend Water Quality Campaign are living examples of this commitment.  Stay tuned to the Chapter’s website and Surfrider Foundation’s Coastal Blog for updates in these ongoing endeavors.

#cleanwaterhealthybeaches #bluewatertaskforce #cleanwater4greatlakes

- Mitch McNeil, Chair

A snapshot of the heavily industrialized NW Indiana corridor - where all the good waves are (of course).      Contact us for a (readable) copy of this map.    

A snapshot of the heavily industrialized NW Indiana corridor - where all the good waves are (of course).  

Contact us for a (readable) copy of this map.