Cliffs Burns Harbor (Cleveland-Cliffs) has agreed to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and other laws, for an August 2019 discharge of ammonia and cyanide-laden wastewater into the East Branch of the Little Calumet River. The discharge, which led to fish kills in the river, also caused beach closures along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Cleveland-Cliffs is undertaking substantial measures to improve its wastewater system at its steel manufacturing and finishing facility in Burns Harbor, Indiana.
The 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 (EPCRA), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA); 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.”
“EPA and its partners worked together to develop a comprehensive solution that will not only support the continued enjoyment of Lake Michigan and Indiana waterways, but also implement necessary measures at the facility to prevent future spills like this again,” said Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield for Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “Today’s settlement demonstrates that EPA is committed to protecting our natural resources from harmful pollution.”
“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.”
“I am grateful to our federal and community partners who helped reach this settlement,” said Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) Commissioner Brian Rockensuess. “The consent decree will result in additional protections for the local community and Lake Michigan and go a long way in improving both health and the environment in Northwest Indiana.”
The settlement agreement, which is memorialized in a consent decree lodged today 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 EPA and the State of Indiana for response costs incurred as a result of an 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.
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.
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 under CERCLA/EPCRA.
EPA and IDEM conducted response actions in and around the areas of the discharges. The incident closed several local beaches along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Inspections and further investigation of the facility by EPA and Indiana Department of Environmental Management revealed additional violations of the facility’s NPDES permits.
In December 2019, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) 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, which will resolve their ongoing citizen suit.
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. These measures are designed to fix conditions at the facility that gave rise to the August 2019 spill, furthering compliance with the CWA and analogous state laws.
To resolve the citizen suit claims, Cleveland-Cliffs has also agreed to two state-administered Environmentally Beneficial Projects (EBPs): (1) a transfer of 127 acres of land property adjacent to the Indiana National Lakeshore to a land trust for conservation; and (2) 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 $10,025.37 and Indiana’s response costs of $37,650.
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 department’s website at: https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.