PORTAGE – In the wake of a chemical spill that closed a beach in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and raised an outcry from environmental groups over public notification and possible effects of the spill, several entities are teaming up to sue the steelmaker behind the toxic release.
Portage attorney Thomas Dogan has filed a notice of intent to sue ArcelorMittal, with plaintiffs in the suit including the Portage Port Authority, Marquette Yacht Club, VI Marina, Dunes Harbor LLC and KLM Dunes, along with nearly 70 people who claim they were affected by the spill.
Dogan said in the letter that the plaintiffs "consist of persons and businesses who recreate, enjoy the natural resources, engage in healthy exercise, instil proper morals, raise their families, enjoy hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities; and conduct legal businesses within the area of the Burns Waterway and nearby Lake Michigan and its environs near Portage."
He said they are all "adversely affected by pollution from the ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor Plant" and intend to sue "for violations of the Clean Water Act resulting from the facility's operation in violation of the law."
“Our marina had barrels of dead and possible poisonous fish located on the premise after the ArcelorMittal cyanide dumping," the Portage Public Marina says in the notice. "The smell has been atrocious ever since this fish-kill took place. There are also dead birds.”
Marina Shores at Dunes Harbor states: “All of our boater residents and many of our housing residents are panicking. People are not purchasing fuel for their boats because of cyanide in the water. People are scared and are staying away.”
And the Marquette Yacht Club says, “Our club depends on boaters purchasing fuel, patronizing our restaurant and recreating on our docks and on the Burns Waterway and Lake Michigan. All of this has slowed and/or stopped since reports of this spill have been disclosed.”
The suit will allege violations of the Clean Water Act, claiming “ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor LLC has repeatedly violated, and will continue to violate,” the terms of its National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, Dogan wrote in a cover letter announcing the suit.
While based on the latest chemical spill, which released cyanide and ammonia into the East Branch of the Little Calumet River, and led to a weeklong closure of the beach at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk, the suit also notes past violations.
“Most egregiously, on or about Aug. 12 or 13, 2019, according to available reports, poor facility maintenance allowed for the illegal discharge of many times the allowable discharge limits of total cyanide and ammonia nitrogen,” the notice states. And on Thursday, Aug. 15, “ArcelorMittal admitted publicly that it greatly exceeded” permit limits for ammonia and cyanide.
“Further, ArcelorMittal has violated its permit limits regarding ammonia discharges within the past seven months,” Dogan writes. On Feb. 5, 2019, the company “reported a spill of about 10,000 gallons of ammonia liquor,” following a “high voltage power interruption that caused a backup in the production line and an overflow of ammonia liquor on the ground.”
Many of the plaintiffs also provided "anecdotal reports” about what happened and why they are suing.
Keith Bond and Amy Lukas wrote that they were fishing in the East Arm of the river on Aug. 14 and swimming at Porter Beach on Aug. 15. "This has diminished the use of the lake and destroyed our recreational fishing. We are concerned about any health issues due to the cyanide and not being informed about it sooner."
Mary Ewen wrote, “I live in Burns Waterway and I have well water. I am scared the cyanide is in my drinking water. I am going to have it tested. I am fearful for my health.”
David Bresnahan owns Marina Shores and said, "All of our boater residents are panicking. People are not purchasing fuel for their boats because of the cyanide in the water. We are concerned about animals being in the grass that has been sprayed with the water and we are concerned about people being in the grass."
Phil Grenchik said he was surfing at the Dunes on Aug. 14 and at the mouth of the Burns Waterway on Aug. 15. "It is a little unnerving knowing that I was swimming in the water and had no idea of the spill.”
Chris Cooper said before the spill, "Burns Waterway was one of my favorite places to fish because of the variety of fish. I bought a salmon stamp but am now unable to use it. We cannot trust any of the fish this year. This affected my winter stock of fish for my family and has taken away my recreational boating and fishing."
Greg Galloway said, “I fish out of the Portage Public Marina on a daily basis. My kids and I were on the lake on Aug. 14, 2019, for a few hours. I am very concerned about any long-lasting issues that may arise from the chemical spill.”
While the City of Portage is not a party to the suit, Mayor John Cannon said in a statement that he wants more monitoring and quicker notifications.
He said he will "look to add a daily monitoring system to monitor any dumping" near the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk.
"From Monday, when the spill occurred, until Thursday, none of us knew. The beaches and waterways were essentially potentially contaminated for four days without anyone knowing," Cannon said in the Facebook post.
"The mayor should always know first, but rest assured, water is safe to drink and water is safe to fish out of and safe to enjoy at the beach."