PORTAGE – After three days of testing showed no trace of hazardous chemicals in the East Branch of the Little Calumet River, the National Park Service reopened the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk beach on Thursday.
A local environmental group, however, is still looking for answers about exactly what happened; why it took several days for the public to be notified; and any lasting environmental impacts the spill might have.
The reopening came a week after the beach was closed following the release of dangerous chemicals into a nearby stream, according to Bruce Rowe, spokesman for Indiana Dunes National Park.
The beach was closed after the Indiana Department of Environmental Management responded to a fish kill following a blast furnace failure at the ArcelorMittal steel mill that spilled toxic levels of cyanide and ammonia into the river.
Several days later, a second smaller spill was also disclosed by U.S. Steel, which said it immediately cleaned the affected area.
A Thursday statement from IDEM said there has been no detection of cyanide or any other hazardous chemicals at any of its 12 sampling locations along the Little Calumet or the shore of Lake Michigan, including Ogden Dunes and West Beach.
After three days of confirmed negative test results, the National Park Service reopened the beach to the public, Rowe said.
The Portage Lakefront & Riverwalk beach, one of eight beaches in the National Park, was the only one closed due to the chemical spill, Rowe said.
IDEM and the NPS said the other beaches in the Lakeshore, and Indiana Dunes State Park, remained safe and open to the public. The National Park was never fully closed, and trails at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk remained open during the beach closure.
"The Indiana Dunes remains a natural wonder and urban oasis that co-exists with big industry," said Dunes Tourism spokesman Dustin Ritchea. "Local officials, including IDEM, NPS, and the Indiana DNR, will continue to monitor and manage the natural resources at the Indiana Dunes to ensure everyone who visits remains safe and informed."
But local environmental groups say that's not enough.
"Save the Dunes is seeking transparency, communication and accountability from all entities involved in the ArcelorMittal incident of exceeded releases of ammonia and cyanide, as well as the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's notification process to affected communities," the organization said in a statement.
"Save the Dunes is working to obtain as much detailed information as possible to understand what led up to the event and its devastating impact on the environment and dangerous exposure to our residents and visitors."
The organization has reviewed ArcelorMittal permits to discharge ammonia and cyanide, and found that while the permit from 2011-16 required monitoring three times a week, the current permit, in effect from 2017 through June 2021, only requires monitoring for ammonia once a week, the statement said.
"Save the Dunes will engage in the upcoming NPDES permit renewal process and make a case for more frequent monitoring and increased restrictions on discharge limits," the organization said.
Also, "ArcelorMittal was allowed a 24-hour period to contact IDEM once the noncompliance event was discovered. This means a noncompliance event could be taking place unbeknownst to the public’s notification agency, IDEM, for nearly a full day before initial reporting takes place," according to Save the Dunes.
The organization said it will "pursue all avenues to work with IDEM and industry like ArcelorMittal to tighten the window between the discovery of a noncompliance event and informing the public."
Both National Park Service staff and Save the Dunes staff also observed birds feeding on the thousands of fish killed by the spill, according to the organization.
"We are staying in close communication with the National Audubon Society and the Dunes-Calumet Audubon Society who have put out a call for birders to document any unusual activities or death," the organization said.
For a detailed map and water sampling reports, use this link: https://bit.ly/2PdYsoU.