A spill at a northern Indiana steel manufacturing plant has compromised drinking water sources and forced temporary closure of three beaches near Lake Michigan. Following a pipe failure, wastewater containing the potentially carcinogenic chemical, hexavalent chromium, leaked into a Lake Michigan tributary.
The leak happened on Tuesday after an expansion joint failed at the electroplating treatment in Portage, Indiana. The wastewater flowed into the Burns Waterway, a Lake Michigan tributary 100 yards from the lake. The Odgen Dunes water treatment plant draws water two miles from the Burns Waterway.
Indiana American Water has temporarily shut down the plant at Odgen Dunes and is tapping into water reserves for the time being. The Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing response to the spill. According to the EPA, tests from the lake are inconclusive.
In the initial water test, the utility’s intake point showed levels of hexavalent chromium “slight above” the detection limit for the chemical. A subsequent test with the same sample came up with levels “at or below” the detection limit, which the EPA insists is much lower than their health-based standard for ingestion of the chemical.
”Even if that number was slightly above the detection limit, it’s below our very conservative health-based levels for ingestion. That’s not a drinking water standard. Those numbers are calculated by an ingestion model,” said Andy Maguire, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator.
Hexavalent chromium is a toxic heavy metal and a carcinogenic byproduct of many industrial processes. Apart from its use in steelmaking, it is also used to prevent corrosion, and as a pigment in dyes, paints, and inks. It is also commonly found in the ash produced from coal-fired power plants.
Likely, you remember hexavalent chromium as the chemical that ravaged the little rural town of Hinkley, California in the classic based-on-a-true-story movie “Erin Brockovich”. The story goes that Pacific Gas & Electric’s disposal method of hexavalent chromium polluted drinking wells and resulted in a plethora of chronic and terminal illnesses in Hinkley residents. In the end, Brockovich managed to procure a $ 333 million dollar settlement.
U.S. Steel has paused production processes in order to respond to the spill. Three beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore are also closed, out of “an abundance of caution” said the EPA. The EPA is currently working with U.S. Steel to determine exactly how much of the wastewater was released.