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U.S. Steel Tried to Keep Latest Chromium Accident "Confidential"

The company asked the state for "confidential treatment" after a maintenance issue caused the release of nearly 60 pounds of chromium.

PORTAGE, Ind. -- Environmentalists want to know why the public wasn't notified when nearly 60 pounds of chromium, a known carcinogen, was released by U.S. Steel.

Documents discovered by the University of Chicago's Abrams Environmental Law Clinic show that U.S. Steel's Midwest Plant released 56.7 pounds of chromium into a tributary of Lake Michigan on Oct. 25, That's nearly twice the daily amount allowed under U.S. Steel's state permit, but not enough to meet  the state's definition of a "spill". 

The release was caused by a "maintenance-related issue" with a wastewater treatment system, according to The Northwest Indiana Times.

The malfunction was discovered on Oct. 26 and reported to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management on Oct. 27. 

On Oct. 31, U.S. Steel wrote to the IDEM Office of Water Quality and asked that they "be afforded confidential treatment of the incident under all applicable statutes".  

Company spokeswoman Meghan Cox said in a statement Wednesday that the request was made "due to business sensitive material". Cox did not specify which material in the letter was considered "business sensitive material".

So, did the state grant their request and keep things "confidential"?

IDEM says no. The agency told WIBC on Friday that U.S Steel's request was denied because it didn't meet the agency's rules for confidentiality (note: PDF automatic download). IDEM says that U.S. Steel then withdrew their request via email.

If the state rejected the request to keep the release confidential, why didn't U.S. Steel go public about the chromium 'release'?

U.S. Steel didn't tell the public because they didn't have to.

U.S. Steel is only required to tell the NRC if and when 5,000 or more pounds of chromium are involved. Because they only released 56.7 pounds of metal, they didn't have to report the incident to the EPA, NRC, or any agency other than IDEM. And, since the event didn't qualify as a spill, they weren't required to tell the general public.

The company said Tuesday the most Oct. 25 event "did not pose any danger to water supply or human health" and that it is working with state officials to ensure there is no "environmental impact".

Per the AP, IDEM is reviewing whether proper notification procedures were followed.

The Oct. 25 release is U.S. Steel's second chromium-related incident in Portage this year. In April, a "rusted pipe" dumped more than 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium into a small waterway near Lake Michigan.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.)

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