Environmental Advocates Worry That U.S. Steel Permit Would Increase Pollution
Published October 11, 2007
GARY, Ind. (AP) — A proposed water permit renewal for the U.S. Steel Corp. mill could relax or eliminate limits on toxic chemicals and heavy metals the company dumps into the Grand Calumet River, according to environmental lawyers who have reviewed the document.
Experts say Indiana regulators eliminated or failed to include limits on toxic chemicals at some points where the steel mill discharges waste into the Lake Michigan tributary, the Chicago Tribune reported for a story Friday.
But the Indiana Department of Environmental Management says the new permit will actually do more to protect the environment than the permit under which the company is currently operating. U.S. Steel says the permit has no discharge limit increases.
The company reports discharging oil and grease, lead, arsenic, benzene, fluoride and nitrates from wastewater pipes at the mill. The draft permit does not limit emissions of these pollutants at all discharge points, the newspaper reported.
Indiana regulators, in a document posted online, said some pollution limits were removed from the old permit because they concluded the mill wasn't likely to exceed them in the future.
The Gary Works — a series of blast furnaces, coke ovens and steel-finishing mills — is the largest source of water pollution in the Lake Michigan basin. The complex dumped more than 1.7 million pounds in 2005.
"This isn't supposed to be happening," said Dale Bryson, chairman of the Alliance for the Great Lakes and former chief of the EPA's regional water office. "The whole purpose behind these laws and rules is to reduce pollution, not allow it to increase."
The proposed permit changes are part of a 117-page, densely worded draft document. IDEM gave citizens and environmental groups until the beginning of October to file comments about the proposed U.S. Steel permit. But many who tried to read the permit have struggled to determine whether overall levels of pollutants would change.
"This permit is indecipherable," said John Crayton, a Chesterton physician. "They tell me I'm going to get some answers, but I'm still waiting."
IDEM said it is reviewing comments submitted by environmental groups to decide whether revisions are needed.
"This is a very big permit, and I understand why people are confused," Bruno Pigott, the agency's assistant commissioner, told the Tribune. "Our analysis shows we are protecting water quality."
The Associated Press left messages seeking comment with IDEM Friday. An IDEM spokeswoman said earlier in the day she was working on a response, but had not called back as of 4:30 p.m.
U.S. Steel's permit is one of 11 major discharge permits IDEM is trying to update.
The state agency has taken heat over its handling of a pollution permit for BP's Whiting oil refinery, which is about 10 miles west of U.S. Steel's Gary Works along Lake Michigan.
BP faced growing public and political outrage over the permit, which allows the company to significantly boost the amount of pollutants dumped into the lake. The company later said the refinery would stay within the limits set in its previous permit.
Critics say Indiana should take a hard look at the new U.S. Steel permit.
"There are very serious problems with this permit that must be addressed," said Ann Alexander, a Chicago attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. "Given what happened with the BP situation, there should be much greater public scrutiny before Indiana moves forward."
Sen. Dick Durbin said the U.S. Steel permit was a "call to arms" for the Illinois congressional delegation, and said he would ask company executives and environmental officials to explain the decisions.
"It troubles me why month after month we have to worry about the governor of Indiana asking for another permit to pollute this lake," said Durbin, D-Ill. "I wish Gov. (Mitch) Daniels would come up and take a look at this beautiful lake.
"It is not just the backyard and sewage dump for the heavy industries that happen to be in Indiana. It happens to be a great asset for his state, for our state and for many others in the Midwest."
The Associated Press left phone messages seeking comment from the governor's office Friday.