SOUTH BEND, Indiana, February 16, 2022 (ENS) – The largest flat-rolled steel producer in North America, Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., has agreed to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act and other laws, by an August 2019 discharge of wastewater containing ammonia and cyanide into the East Branch of the Little Calumet River, which flows into Lake Michigan. The discharge originated from the company’s Cliffs Burns Harbor facility on Lake Michigan in northwest Indiana, 50 miles southeast of Chicago.
Due to a failed blast furnace wastewater pumping station, the discharge led to fish kills in the river and caused beach closures along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
August 2019 was not the first trouble at the steel mill in Burns Harbor, Indiana. The facility reported over a hundred permit violations from 2015 to 2019, including total cyanide, free cyanide, and ammonia discharged into the Little Calumet River, which flows directly into Lake Michigan, putting the local ecosystem and communities at risk.
But neither the Indiana Department of Environmental Management nor the U.S. EPA took any formal enforcement action against the facility owners in all that time.
The settlement agreement, reached this week and set in a consent decree lodged in federal district court in the Northern District of Indiana, requires Cleveland-Cliffs to pay $3 million as a civil penalty and to reimburse the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Indiana for response costs incurred as a result of the August 2019 discharge of wastewater containing ammonia and cyanide into a river that flows into Lake Michigan.
A new ammonia treatment system and cyanide treatment requirements will greatly reduce the facility’s water pollution levels.
The Justice Department complaint filed with the settlement alleges that Cleveland-Cliffs exceeded discharge pollution limits for cyanide and ammonia; failed to properly report those cyanide and ammonia releases under the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act; and violated other Clean Water Act and permit terms.
“Today’s settlement with Cleveland-Cliffs appropriately penalizes the company for its significant violations and requires extensive actions by the company to prevent future pollution,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The cyanide and ammonia reductions will result in a cleaner Lake Michigan, and the public will be kept informed of potential future spills.”
In August 2019, the facility’s blast furnace closed loop air scrubber water recycle system failed, requiring Cleveland-Cliffs to draw in large volumes of Lake Michigan water and discharge it through the facility outfalls, without being able to recycle the water.
Cleveland-Cliffs’ wastewater treatment system is not designed for the treatment and discharge of this volume of water, so the incident resulted in discharges containing high levels of untreated cyanide and ammonia-nitrogen. Following the discharge of untreated water, there was a fish kill in the East Branch of the Little Calumet River.
Cleveland-Cliffs failed to provide timely notification and emergency reports to the local emergency response authorities after the release, as required.
Federal and state agencies conducted response actions in and around the areas of the discharges.
Inspections and further investigation of the facility by EPA and Indiana Department of Environmental Management revealed more violations of the facility’s NPDES permits.
Under the consent decree, Cleveland-Cliffs will construct and operate a new ammonia treatment system at the blast furnaces, implement a new procedure for managing and treating once-through water during emergency situations, and follow enhanced preventive maintenance, operation and sampling requirements for the facility.
In December 2019, the Environmental Law and Policy Center and Hoosier Environmental Council filed a citizen suit against Cleveland-Cliffs for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. ELPC and HEC are also signatories to the consent decree, resolving their ongoing citizen suit.
To resolve the citizen suit claims, Cleveland-Cliffs has agreed to two state-administered Environmentally Beneficial Projects: a transfer of 127 acres of land adjacent to the Indiana National Lakeshore to a land trust for conservation; and background sampling on the East Branch of the Little Calumet River and Lake Michigan.
As part of the agreement, Cleveland-Cliffs will reimburse EPA’s total cleanup response costs of $10,025 and Indiana’s response costs of $37,650.
“Hoosiers support a legal climate in Indiana that both promotes thriving businesses and protects our natural environment,” said Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita. “I’m pleased to see a resolution in this particular case that upholds the rule of law and establishes commitments to make physical upgrades that will benefit everyone involved.”
Cleveland-Cliffs will also resolve allegations under EPCRA and CERCLA by implementing a protocol to notify relevant state and local groups about any future spills of cyanide from its Burns Harbor facility.
Today’s settlement, lodged with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, is subject to a 30-day public comment period following notification in the Federal Register, and final approval by the court. To view the consent decree or to submit a comment, visit the Justice Department’s website at: https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.
Featured image: Steelmaking at Cliff Burns Harbor (Photo courtesy Cleveland Cliffs)
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