Chesterton Tribune



Fish kill in Little Calumet traced to ArcelorMittal chemical exceedance

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What the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) is calling “exceedances” of two chemicals from the ArcelorMittal USA facility at Burns Harbor is believed to be responsible for a sizable fish-kill on Thursday in the East Branch of the Little Calumet River.

“IDEM has learned that ArcelorMittal experienced exceedances of the daily maximum limit for total cyanide and ammonia-nitrogen,” IDEM reported late Thursday afternoon. “These exceedances appear to be the cause or a significant contributing factor to the mortality of the fish observed on the East Arm of the Little Calumet River. IDEM has requested that the facility initiate a spill response along with increased monitoring of its outfalls to the Little Calumet River. IDEM and (the Indiana Department of Natural Resources) ask residents to avoid this area while cleanup and mitigation efforts are ongoing.”

The chemicals seem to have entered the East Branch of the Little Cal at its confluence with an ArcelorMittal outfall ditch, just west of the Shadyside Mobile Home Community and slightly upstream from its confluence with Salt Creek.

In response to the exceedances, the National Park Service (NPS) has closed the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk site--located at the terminus of Burns Ditch, into which the East Arm flows--as well as the waters of Lake Michigan out to 300 feet.

“While the beach area at Portage Lakefront and portions of the Little Calumet River (between Ind. 149 to Ind. 249) have been closed, the trails in that area remain open to the public,” NPS added.

The impacted waters will remain closed until further notice, NPS said. For now “residents are advised to avoid eating fish in the affected areas. The National Park Service has staff on scene and is continuing to closely monitor the situation and will provide an update as more information is available.”

Indiana American Water Company, which operates a pumping and treatment facility in Ogden Dunes, is also monitoring the situation, spokesman Joe Loughmiller told the Chesterton Tribune today. So far, no impact on water quality has been detected. “We perform continuous real-time monitoring at our Ogden Dunes treatment facility and have seen no impact on the raw water parameters we are monitoring for at this location or on our finished water quality,” he said. “We have spoken with a representative from the IDEM emergency response team on site and are awaiting additional information from them as their investigation progresses. As a precaution, we have reduced our flow through this facility and are continuing to closely monitor the situation.”

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources was on the scene as well but declined to discuss in any detail the extent of the fish-kill. “We are investigating how many fish are dead and of what species,” spokesman Marty Benson told the Tribune. “That is our role and our effort is ongoing.”

ArcelorMittal, for its part, released the following statement on Thursday: “This week the Indiana Department of Natural Resources observed dead fish near Burns Ditch, located at the southern end of the Burns Harbor facility. We responded immediately and are conducting ongoing sampling in the area. Preliminary sampling has indicated cyanide and ammonia exceedances of permitted limits. We are still investigating whether those constituents are a contributing factor and what the source of these exceedances might be. We will continue to work closely with the agencies involved and provide updates as appropriate.”

No responding agency has actually estimated the number of fish killed in the event. Paul Labovitz, superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Park, has his own estimate, however. “I think hundreds,” he told the Tribune this morning. “I’ve seen pictures. It didn’t wipe out the river but it killed a lot of fish.”

“It was a broad-spectrum kill,” Labovitz added. “It killed everything. It was not species-specific. Anything close to the source (of the exceedances) was killed. It even killed catfish, and catfish are pretty hard to kill.”

Labovitz said that there is no indication yet that other animals living on or around the banks of the East Arm of the Little Calumet River have been impacted--mammals, birds, amphibians--but his guess right now is that scavenging species could be. “If the compound was cyanide, probably anything that eats dead fish, like cormorants, will be affected. We’re out there looking now.”

There may be a spot of good news, on the other hand. The exceedance, Labovitz said, did kill fish downstream but looks to have “diluted out” at some point. “I don’t believe it made it all the way to the lake. I don’t believe fish are still dying from the discharge.”

Meanwhile, Labovitz praised ArcelorMittal for the immediacy of the company’s response and for its transparency. “Arcelor has been really wonderful communicating with us as they investigate and learn what happened, far better than U.S. Steel,” he said, referring to the release of a carcinogen into Burns Ditch from U.S. Steel’s Portage facility in April 2017. “I talked to two different people from Arcelor three times yesterday. They’re calling us up.”

Still, at this point more is unknown about the exceedances than is known. “When will it be safe? I don’t know,” Labovitz said. “I can’t say how dangerous it was, and if it was when it will be safe. I put this in the category of ‘(Stuff) Happens in an Industrial Community.’ Arcelor is sincerely trying to figure out what went wrong.” Under any circumstances, though, Labovitz cautions people about ever eating fish out of Burns Ditch, given the bio-accumulation of toxins in fish from years of industrial activity.


Posted 8/16/2019






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