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Cyanide from a steel plant trickled into Lake Michigan for days before the public was notified

A dead catfish floats along the bank of the Burns Ditch near the Portage Marina in Portage, Ind., on Thursday. Some beaches along northwestern Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline are closed after authorities say a chemical spill in a tributary caused a fish kill. (John Luke/AP)
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Phil Grenchik was surfing with friends along the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan on Thursday evening. Little did he know, just up the Little Calumet River, thousands of fish were dying, and investigators were struggling to determine exactly how much cyanide and ammonia had flowed out into the lake after a spill at an industrial plant earlier in the week.

As soon as the group got out of the water, they got a notification about the chemical spill.

“We all were like, oh my God, we all were just in that water for 3½ hours and nobody knew about it,” said Grenchik, a 46-year-old who has lived in the area around Ogden Dunes, Ind., all his life.

Others might have been dipping into the water for days without knowing. Reports suggest that the chemical spill might have occurred Monday or earlier. The beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park, which includes Ogden Dunes, weren’t closed until Thursday night. In the meantime, thousands of fish were dying in the same water people were swimming and fishing in.

Officials later confirmed that ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg-based steel and mining company upstream from Lake Michigan on the Little Calumet, was responsible for the spill. In a statement, ArcelorMittal said a “failure at the blast furnace water recirculation system” caused water laced with cyanide and ammonia to flow from the facility into the river and out into Lake Michigan.

John Cannon, the mayor of Portage, Ind., told The Washington Post that his office didn’t know about the spill until days after it happened, a delay for which he blames the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. But ultimately, he said, he “holds ArcelorMittal responsible” for the spill and the damage it caused.

On Aug. 12, the IDEM received a report about “distressed fish in the East Arm of the Little Calumet River,” which is where the ArcelorMittal plant is located. According to a statement, the department investigated and confirmed that there were fish in distress. On Tuesday evening, more complaints flowed in about multiple dead fish in the river. By Wednesday, the agency “observed a significant fish die off had occurred,” but said they did not yet know the cause.

On Thursday, after the IDEM published a statement indicating that it was investigating the die-off, ArcelorMittal notified the IDEM that the company “violated its daily maximum limits” for the amount of cyanide and ammonia released into the river.

At that point, the agency says it “alerted local media, environmental organizations, and local officials including Indiana American Water and the mayor of Portage.”

Cannon says the alert didn’t come soon enough. He and his staff went out to the river to examine the dead fish themselves Thursday morning. The IDEM was there when they arrived, he said, holding “a bag of dead fish.” According to Cannon, the representatives from the IDEM told them it would release a statement that day with details about what occurred. Cannon said they did not receive any information from the IDEM until Friday morning and that it was “very vague."

On Monday, IDEM and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources said it directed ArcelorMittal to sample and test the water in the Little Calumet River out to the mouth of Lake Michigan. The tests showed elevated cyanide in the water, but they were below “the maximum contaminant level” determined by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The results of ArcelorMittal’s tests along the Lake Michigan shoreline were pending as of Monday evening.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, effects of cyanide depends on the amount a person is exposed to, the way they were exposed to it (breathing a gas versus drinking it in water), and the duration of exposure. Symptoms of minor to moderate exposure can include dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing and heart rate and weakness.

“While we are still awaiting official results from previous day’s sampling events,” ArcelorMittal said in a statement, “we can confirm that the most recently available data shows that ammonia is now within permitted levels and cyanide levels have been decreasing daily and currently are significantly below the levels experienced during the initial release.”

ArcelorMittal has not shared publicly the amount of cyanide and ammonia released, except to say that it was “elevated.” It has not said when blast-furnace failure occurred. In a statement, the company said it “promptly reported these exceedances to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.”

“ArcelorMittal knows that we have a responsibility to all stakeholders to be a trusted user of natural resources,” the company said, “and we sincerely apologize for falling short on this responsibility.”

A spokesperson for ArcelorMittal said there was no new information as of Monday night.

Cannon said he’s asking both IDEM and ArcelorMittal for better notification when a spill happens, so they can tell boaters, fishermen and swimmers that there may have been a spill, and to avoid going in the water or eating the fish that come out of it until they can assess the situation.

“That’s all were asking them to do,” Cannon said. “Not wait four days and suddenly fish are belly-up in our marina.”

Grenchik, the Ogden Dunes resident, said he has not felt any adverse effects, but he has a physical scheduled for next week. He said he will bring up the potential exposure with his doctors.

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