January 18, 2018

Law Clinic Proceeds With Environmental Lawsuit Against U.S. Steel

The Surfrider Foundation, represented by UChicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, announced yesterday that it is proceeding with a lawsuit against the U.S. Steel Corporation.

Last November, the clinic sent a notice of intent to sue to U.S. Steel over its violations of the Clean Water Act. The company dumped hexavalent chromium from its Midwest Plant into Lake Michigan via the Burns Waterway in Indiana on multiple occasions during 2017.

In April, the company discharged an amount of chromium into Lake Michigan far higher than the legal limit of 30 pounds per day. From 7 a.m. on October 25 to 7 a.m. on October 26, U.S. Steel released 56.7 pounds of chromium. According to a letter sent by the company to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) on October 31, Indiana officials were not notified of the spill until October 27, the following day.

“U.S. Steel has 21 days to respond, according to the Federal Rules of Procedure [after being formally served with the lawsuit],” said Robert Weinstock, a lecturer in law at the Law School and the Abrams Environmental Law Fellow.

Students at the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic originally found the letter while tracking pollution violations at factories situated on the shores of Lake Michigan. Though the letter was posted on the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s database and was publically available, U.S. Steel and IDEM did not notify either the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) or the general public.

The weekend following the spill, several surfers were exposed to hexavalent chromium, the adverse effects of which include skin and eye irritation, kidney and liver damage, and cancer. 

In December, after having announced its intent to sue the corporation in November, the City of Chicago sent a letter to the EPA requesting that the City be made part of any negotiations with U.S. Steel. Surfrider and the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic sent a similar letter. According to Weinstock, the EPA never responded to the clinic’s letter and recently denied the City’s request.

The Clean Water Act allows citizens to sue polluters and requires that both the polluter and the government be given a 60-day notice from the intent-to-sue notice to when the lawsuit is served. During those 60 days, neither the EPA nor the IDEM took legal action against U.S. Steel. “The fact that there has been no formal legal action taken by regulators is certainly disappointing,” Weinstock said.

According to Weinstock, the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic and the Surfrider Foundation hope that their suit will act as a deterrent for other potential Clean Water Act violators and serve to remind regulators that if they fail to take action, citizens are prepared to do so.

“I think that what is important here is that U.S. Steel should be forced to take all necessary actions to make sure that further illegal discharges never occur again,” Weinstock said. “It is important that U.S. Steel be subject to an appropriate and significant civil penalty to reflect the seriousness of their past violations and to deter them from future Clean Water Act violations.” The penalty must be large enough to negate any economic benefit that U.S. Steel has enjoyed from not investing in upgrades at their plants.

The Surfrider Foundation hopes that the money from U.S. Steel’s penalty will go back to the local environment that the chromium dumping harmed.

In a comment given to The Maroon by U.S. Steel, the corporation states that it has “worked cooperatively with government and regulatory entities to swiftly remediate the issues at our Midwest Plant in Portage, Indiana, with which the Surfrider Foundation is concerned, thereby rendering this lawsuit unnecessary.”

U.S. Steel also says that it has taken several steps to ensure that its Midwest Plant is compliant with current environmental and safety standards.

The full statement can be read below: 

We share the belief of the Surfrider Foundation that protecting our water resources is of critical importance. Consistent with those shared beliefs, we have worked cooperatively with government and regulatory entities to swiftly remediate the issues at our Midwest Plant in Portage, Indiana with which the Surfrider Foundation is concerned, thereby rendering this lawsuit unnecessary.

We acknowledge and regret the incidents and have consistently worked to identify, report, investigate, and correct each issue.  We are driven by our core value of environmental stewardship, which establishes our firm commitment to compliance with environmental rules and regulations. 

Through our culture of continuous improvement, we have implemented processes and systems which have improved environmental performance and will ensure that our neighbors and shared resources are safeguarded. 

U. S. Steel has already taken several steps to ensure that our Midwest Plant continues to meet or exceed all safety and environmental standards moving forward. We installed a new wastewater piping system, eliminating the need for expansion joints like the ones that failed in April; we are redeveloping our comprehensive wastewater Operations and Maintenance Plan; and we are evaluating the installation of an enhanced wastewater monitoring system to alert us of any potential incidents. Each of these items are being completed in consultation with government and regulatory agencies. 


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