Cleveland-Cliffs Agrees to Improve Environmental Compliance at Indiana Facility and Pay $3 Million Civil Penalty for Ammonia and Cyanide Violations
Cliffs Burns Harbor (Cleveland-Cliffs) has agreed to resolve alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) and other laws, for an August 2019 spill of ammonia and cyanide-laden sewage in the East Arm of the Little Calumet River. The spill, which killed fish in the river, also caused the closure of beaches along the shore of Indiana Dunes National Lake. Cleveland-Cliffs is undertaking substantial steps to improve its wastewater treatment system at its steel fabrication and finishing plant in Burns Harbor, Indiana.
The lawsuit filed with the settlement alleges that Cleveland-Cliffs exceeded pollution discharge limits for cyanide and ammonia; failed to properly report such cyanide and ammonia releases under the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA) and the CERCLA Act; and violated other terms of the Clean Water Act and permits.
“Today’s settlement with Cleveland-Cliffs appropriately penalizes the company for its material violations and requires significant actions by the company to prevent future pollution,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim said. for the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the Department of Justice. “The cyanide and ammonia reductions will result in a cleaner Lake Michigan, and the public will be kept informed of potential future spills.”
“The EPA and its partners have worked together to develop a comprehensive solution that will not only continue to enjoy the Lake Michigan and Indiana waterways, but also implement the necessary measures at the facility to avoid such spills again,” said Larry Starfield, acting deputy administrator. for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Today’s settlement demonstrates the EPA’s commitment to protecting our natural resources from harmful pollution.”
“The Hoosiers support a legal climate in Indiana that both promotes successful businesses and protects our natural environment,” said Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita. “I am delighted 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 bring about 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 will go a long way to improving both health and the environment in Northwest Indiana.”
The settlement agreement, which is recorded in a consent decree filed today in Federal District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, requires Cleveland-Cliffs to pay $3 million in civil penalty and repay the EPA and the State of Indiana for response costs incurred. following an August 2019 spill of sewage containing ammonia and cyanide into a river that empties into Lake Michigan. A new ammonia treatment system and cyanide treatment requirements will significantly reduce the facility’s water pollution levels.
Cleveland-Cliffs will also resolve allegations under EPCRA and CERCLA by implementing a protocol to notify affected state and local groups of any future cyanide spills from its Burns Harbor facility.
In August 2019, the facility’s blast furnace closed-loop air scrubber water recycling system failed, forcing Cleveland-Cliffs to draw large volumes of water from Lake Michigan and rejecting it through the outlets of the installation, without being able to recycle the water. The 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 ammoniacal nitrogen. Following the release of untreated water, there was a fish kill in the East Arm of the Little Calumet River.
Cleveland-Cliffs failed to provide timely notification and emergency reports to local emergency response authorities following the release, as required by CERCLA/EPCRA.
The EPA and IDEM carried out response actions in and around the discharge areas. The incident closed several local beaches along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Inspections and further investigation of the facility by EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management revealed other violations of the facility’s NPDES permits.
In December 2019, the Environmental Law and Policy Center (ELPC) and the Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) filed a citizens’ action 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 lawsuit.
Under the consent decree, Cleveland-Cliffs will construct and operate a new blast furnace ammonia treatment system, implement a new once-through water management and treatment procedure during emergency and will follow enhanced preventative maintenance, operating and sampling requirements for ease. These actions are designed to correct the conditions at the facility that resulted in the August 2019 spill, enhancing compliance with the CWA and analogous state laws.
To resolve citizen grievances, Cleveland-Cliffs also agreed to two state-administered Environmentally Beneficial Projects (EBPs): (1) a transfer of 127 acres of landholding adjacent to the Indiana National Lakeshore to a trust land for conservation; and (2) bottom sampling on the East Arm of the Little Calumet River and Lake Michigan.
As part of the agreement, Cleveland-Cliffs will reimburse total EPA cleanup response costs of $10,025.37 and Indiana response costs of $37,650.
Today’s settlement, filed with the United States District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, is subject to a 30-day public comment period after notification in the Federal Register and final court approval. . To view the consent decree or to submit a comment, visit the department’s website at: https://www.justice.gov/enrd/consent-decrees.