By Michael Hawthorne
Chicago and a band of Great Lakes surfers are challenging a federal legal settlement with U.S. Steel, accusing the Trump administration of failing to punish the steelmaker harshly enough for repeated spills of toxic chromium into Lake Michigan.
In a letter sent Friday and made public Monday, the Chicago Law Department and the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation vowed to oppose the proposed deal in federal court unless the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice make significant changes.
The letter described the nearly $900,000 in proposed fines and other penalties as woefully insufficient, condemned a lack of environmental improvement projects for surrounding communities and demanded an independent study of potential long-term damage caused by chromium discharges from U.S. Steel’s Midwest Plant in Portage, Ind.
U.S. Steel also should be required to create an automated early warning system to alert authorities about future spills, the letter concluded.
“State and federal regulators have failed to provide adequate oversight or take necessary enforcement action,” Edward Siskel, the city’s corporation counsel, and Michelle Kremer, Surfrider’s chief executive, wrote in the three-page letter.
The EPA and Justice Department began negotiating privately with U.S. Steel last year after Surfrider enlisted the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago to research pollution violations at factories on the southern shore of Lake Michigan.
Law students at the clinic unearthed records that revealed the Midwest Plant had violated chromium limits in its federal water pollution permit at least four times since 2013, including during an April 2017 spill involving 298 pounds of a highly toxic form of the metal known as hexavalent chromium.
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