Burns Harbor Steel Mill to Pay $3 Million for 2019 Cyanide, Ammonia Spill

February 18, 2022

The company that owns a northwestern Indiana steel mill has agreed to pay $3 million and perform upgrades at the facility to prevent future unauthorized cyanide and ammonia releases.

Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., owner of the Cleveland-Cliffs Burns Harbor facility, signed a consent agreement to resolve allegations the company violated the Clean Water Act and other federal and state laws when the facility released excess levels of cyanide and ammonia into the Little Calumet River in August 2019. Those spills resulted in the killing of thousands of fish and the closure of public beaches on Lake Michigan.

The company was previously owned by the Indian/Luxembourgian company ArcelorMittal S.A., which admitted responsibility for the release, saying it was the result of a failure of a blast furnace water recirculation system.

The consent decree requires Cleveland-Cliffs to upgrade the facility, including the installation of cyanide and ammonia treatment systems and an ammonia removal system; submit an ammonia investigation report to IDEM and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; and undertake other facility and reporting improvements.

The company will also have to pay the U.S. and the state of Indiana $1.5 million each and transfer 127.33 acres of land abutting the Indiana Dunes National Park to a land trust organization for permanent conservation protection.

“Today’s settlement with Cleveland-Cliffs appropriately penalizes the company for its significant violations and requires extensive actions by the company to prevent future pollution,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The cyanide and ammonia reductions will result in a cleaner Lake Michigan, and the public will be kept informed of potential future spills.”

The consent decree is the result of a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Hoosier Environmental Council after the 2019 incident.

The organizations tracked multiple years of violations, including the exceedance of pollutants the plant was allowed to release into nearby waterways.

They sued the company after the spill, saying it was necessary to do so because state and federal agencies had failed to take action even after a long pattern of repeated water quality violations.

Court documents later detailed the release of cyanide and ammonia beyond permitted limits as early as 2014, including events the company did not immediately report to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, as required by law.

“This consent decree demonstrates our ability to hold corporate polluters accountable for violating environmental laws and permit requirements,” said Howard Learner, ELPC executive director. “We’re putting industrial operators on notice that the waters of Northwest Indiana can’t be polluted without consequence.”

“We’re heartened by this consent decree, and we’re very hopeful that it will not only safeguard the extraordinary ecological treasure that is Lake Michigan from another toxic industrial spill, but elevate environmental protection across Northwest Indiana, which has several communities that have borne a special burden of environmental injustice for far too long,” said Hoosier Environmental Council executive director Jesse Kharbanda.

The Burns Harbor facility and other U.S. facilities owned by ArcelorMittal were acquired by Cleveland-Cliffs in October 2020, making it the largest steel producer in North America.

IDEM inspectors continued finding permit and self-monitoring violations in the final days of ArcelorMittal ownership.

Cleveland-Cliffs is now responsible for correcting the violations at the facility.

In December 2021, IDEM levied a $100,800 civil penalty on the company for pollutant emissions violations at the facility in 2018 and 2019,

The company is also responsible for upholding the conditions of previous agreements regulating hazardous air pollutants and sulfur dioxide emissions.

Burns Harbor Steel Mill to Pay $3 Million for 2019 Cyanide, Ammonia Spill