MAC/20: Mines and Communities

USA: ArcelorMittal cyanide hits Lake Michigan

Published by MAC on 2019-09-03
Source: Washington Post

Cyanide from a steel plant trickled into Lake Michigan for days before the
public was notified

Morgan Krakow

Washington Post

19 August 2019

Phil Grenchik was surfing with friends along the Indiana shore of Lake
Michigan on Thursday evening. Little did he know, just up the Little
Calumet River, thousands of fish were dying, and investigators were
struggling to determine exactly how much cyanide and ammonia had flowed out
into the lake after a spill at an industrial plant earlier in the week.

As soon as the group got out of the water, they got a notification about
the chemical spill.

“We all were like, oh my God, we all were just in that water for 3½ hours
and nobody knew about it,” said Grenchik, a 46-year-old who has lived in
the area around Ogden Dunes, Ind., all his life.

Others might have been dipping into the water for days without knowing.
Reports suggest that the chemical spill might have occurred Monday or
earlier. The beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park, which includes Ogden
Dunes, weren’t closed until Thursday night. In the meantime, thousands of
fish were dying in the same water people were swimming and fishing in.

Officials later confirmed that ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg-based steel and
mining company upstream from Lake Michigan on the Little Calumet, was
responsible for the spill. In a statement, ArcelorMittal said a “failure at
the blast furnace water recirculation system” caused water laced with
cyanide and ammonia to flow from the facility into the river and out into
Lake Michigan.

John Cannon, the mayor of Portage, Ind., told The Washington Post that his
office didn’t know about the spill until days after it happened, a delay
for which he blames the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. But
ultimately, he said, he “holds ArcelorMittal responsible” for the spill and
the damage it caused.

On Aug. 12, the IDEM received a report about “distressed fish in the East
Arm of the Little Calumet River,” which is where the ArcelorMittal plant is
located. According to a statement, the department investigated and
confirmed that there were fish in distress. On Tuesday evening, more
complaints flowed in about multiple dead fish in the river. By Wednesday,
the agency “observed a significant fish die off had occurred,” but said
they did not yet know the cause.

On Thursday, after the IDEM published a statement indicating that it was
investigating the die-off, ArcelorMittal notified the IDEM that the company
“violated its daily maximum limits” for the amount of cyanide and ammonia
released into the river.

At that point, the agency says it “alerted local media, environmental
organizations, and local officials including Indiana American Water and the
mayor of Portage.”

Cannon says the alert didn’t come soon enough. He and his staff went out to
the river to examine the dead fish themselves Thursday morning. The IDEM
was there when they arrived, he said, holding “a bag of dead fish.”

According to Cannon, the representatives from the IDEM told them it would
release a statement that day with details about what occurred. Cannon said
they did not receive any information from the IDEM until Friday morning and
that it was “very vague."

On Monday, IDEM and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources said it
directed ArcelorMittal to sample and test the water in the Little Calumet
River out to the mouth of Lake Michigan. The tests showed elevated cyanide
in the water, but they were below “the maximum contaminant level”
determined by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The results of ArcelorMittal’s tests along the Lake Michigan shoreline were
pending as of Monday evening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
<https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/cyanide/basics/facts.asp>, effects of
cyanide depends on the amount a person is exposed to, the way they were
exposed to it (breathing a gas versus drinking it in water), and the
duration of exposure. Symptoms of minor to moderate exposure can include
dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing and heart rate
and weakness.

“While we are still awaiting official results from previous day’s sampling
events,” ArcelorMittal said in a statement, “we can confirm that the most
recently available data shows that ammonia is now within permitted levels
and cyanide levels have been decreasing daily and currently are
significantly below the levels experienced during the initial release.”

ArcelorMittal has not shared publicly the amount of cyanide and ammonia
released, except to say that it was “elevated.” It has not said when
blast-furnace failure occurred. In a statement, the company said it
“promptly reported these exceedances to the Indiana Department of
Environmental Management.”

“ArcelorMittal knows that we have a responsibility to all stakeholders to
be a trusted user of natural resources,” the company said, “and we
sincerely apologize for falling short on this responsibility.”

A spokesperson for ArcelorMittal said there was no new information as of
Monday night.

Cannon said he’s asking both IDEM and ArcelorMittal for better notification
when a spill happens, so they can tell boaters, fishermen and swimmers that
there may have been a spill, and to avoid going in the water or eating the
fish that come out of it until they can assess the situation.

“That’s all were asking them to do,” Cannon said. “Not wait four days and
suddenly fish are belly-up in our marina.”

Grenchik, the Ogden Dunes resident, said he has not felt any adverse
effects, but he has a physical scheduled for next week. He said he will
bring up the potential exposure with his doctors.

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