The Surfrider Foundation, represented by the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago, has sent a ‘Notice of Intent to Sue’ to the U.S. Steel Corporation for repeated and ongoing violations of the Clean Water Act at U.S Steel’s Portage, Indiana facility. The facility sits on the Lake Michigan shoreline, immediately adjacent to a beloved spot among surfers and coastal recreationalists from the Chicago area, northwest Indiana, and Michigan.
Last April, U.S. Steel’s Portage facility illegally spilled almost 350 pounds of chromium – almost 300 pounds of which were the highly toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent chromium, made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich — into a small waterway that feeds directly into Lake Michigan. Publicly available documents show that broken and poorly maintained infrastructure allowed this spill to occur. The April spill is just one of several violations by the U.S. Steel facility in recent years, including prior chromium and hexavalent chromium spills, among others. In addition, U.S. Steel appears to have failed to correct its problems as two weeks ago, there was yet another illegal chromium discharge.
The Clean Water Act allows citizens and citizen groups to sue those who violate the Act. The Act requires citizens to provide a 60-day advanced notice to the polluter and the government before citizens can file their suit. Citizens can seek remedies such as monetary penalties and an injunction that requires the company to stop polluting and to change the practices that have led to the illegal discharges.
"By initiating this matter, the Surfrider Foundation is seeking to protect the Great Lakes and water enthusiasts who enjoy recreating in the south end of Lake Michigan, including surfers of this region,” said Surfrider Foundation’s Chicago Chapter Chair, Mitch McNeil. “We want to bring about real and lasting positive change to the way U.S. Steel co-exists with the inhabitants of the community and recreational users of the lake. U.S. Steel and other polluters must realize that they will be held accountable for ignoring the water quality rules that are in place."
Midwestern surfers have long had a special connection to the south end of Lake Michigan. Incredible natural beauty, including the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, sits side-by-side with massive, aging industrial facilities like coal-fired power plants, oil refineries, and steel factories. South end surfers are drawn to the unique breaks created by the shoreline and are proud of their region’s traditional role as a manufacturing powerhouse. At the same time, surfers have long wondered about how the ongoing industrial presence affects the waters where they paddle out.
“Surfers and other water users should be able to recreate at Lake Michigan beaches without fear of risking their health from contaminated water,” said Surfrider Foundation Legal Associate Staley Prom. “The Clean Water Act is in place in part for exactly that reason, and it’s critical that it is enforced against polluters in order to protect public health.”
The Surfrider Foundation and its lawyers at the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School are taking action now because federal and state regulators have not pursued legal action against U.S. Steel.
“It has been six months since U.S. Steel violated its permit limits by a factor of 10 – and it broke the law yet again last month – but neither the U.S. EPA nor the Indiana Department of Environmental Management have taken any legal action against the facility,” said Mark Templeton, Associate Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic. “We stand with Surfrider in initiating this citizen-led process to hold U.S. Steel accountable, and we stand ready to do so against other polluters who threaten Lake Michigan and those who recreate in it.”
About the Surfrider Foundation
The Surfrider Foundation is a non-profit grassroots organization dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our world’s ocean, waves and beaches through a powerful network. Founded in 1984 by a handful of visionary surfers in Malibu, California, the Surfrider Foundation now maintains over 500,000 supporters, activists and members, with more than 80 volunteer-led chapters and 60 clubs in the U.S., and more than 400 victories protecting our coasts. Learn more at surfrider.org.
About the Abrams Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School
The Abrams Environmental Law Clinic attempts to solve some of the most pressing environmental problems throughout Chicago, the Great Lakes region, and the nation. On behalf of clients, the clinic challenges those who pollute illegally, fights for stricter permits, advocates for changes to regulations and laws, holds environmental agencies accountable, and develops innovative approaches for improving the environment. Through clinic participation, students learn substantive environmental law and procedures for addressing concerns through the courts and administrative tribunals. Learn more at https://www.law.uchicago.edu/c