By David North

A group of dedicated Great Lakes surfers is always chasing the next big wave, even if it means surfing in dangerous water alongside grimy landscapes home to some of the area’s largest polluters.

The surfers say some of the best waves in the midwest are near Whiting and Portage in northern Indiana, an area of Lake Michigan they refer to as “Southend.” But the surf scene is unlike the coastal ocean paradises where most surfers flock. The local spots are directly next to towering industrial complexes, including those of British Petroleum (BP) and U.S. Steel.

The BP facility sits near what used to be a gun club. Surfers call the location “Shooters.”

“It feels a bit more like you’re part of the background of a Kurt Russell, post-America apocalyptic wasteland,” says Patrick Noyes, who last year directed a documentary about the spot, Southend: The Place Where I Go Surfing. “There is BP, [the] huge aboveground web of pipes . . . next to a huge ArcelorMittal steel manufacturing facility with fire-breathing, smog-belching smokestacks next to a gigantic pile of coal.”

Longtime surfer Rex Flodstrom says “the refineries, flame towers, and industry make a unique backdrop for surfing. Sometimes you see irregular clouds of black or orange smoke.”

Beyond the grit, the location poses a number of hazards to surfers, says Mitch McNeil. McNeil is the chairman of the Surfrider Foundation’s Chicago chapter, a group that advocates to make more locations open for surfing, which was banned in the city until recently and now is restricted to two areas in the summer and four the rest of the year.

Last April, Surfrider Chicago took its advocacy to another level after U.S. Steel discharged nearly 300 pounds of toxic hexavalent chromium into the Burns Waterway in Portage, which flows into Lake Michigan. The company cited equipment failure as the cause of the spill.

U.S. Steel, under EPA oversight, collected water samples from the waterway on April 11 that contained chromium levels several hundred times greater than those allowed under its permits, the EPA reported. Levels at the point where the waterway meets Lake Michigan were at least twice the amount allowed.

Chromium is a naturally occurring element used in electroplating, making stainless steel, manufacturing textiles, and preserving wood. According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to hexavalent chromium “at high levels can damage the nose and cause cancer.” A toxic substances fact sheet further warns that “ingesting high levels may result in anemia or damage to the stomach or intestines. . . . Allergic reactions consisting of severe redness and swelling of the skin have [also] been noted.” The dangers associated with the chemical were made famous in the movie Erin Brockovich.

Last October, U.S. Steel violated its federal permit again when chromium was once more released into the water by Portage, the EPA said. While the company informed regulators at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, it requested the incident be kept “confidential,” the Chicago Tribune reported earlier this year. The U.S. EPA apparently wasn’t aware of this spill until a Tribune reporter contacted the agency.

That’s when Surfrider Chicago got involved. Under the federal Clean Water Act, private citizens can sue private companies for harming the environment. Surfrider, which is represented by the University of Chicago’s Abrams Environmental Law Clinic, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of Northern Indiana’s Hammond office.

The suit says that surfers—unaware of what happened—were in the water shortly after the spill.

“The weekend following U.S. Steel’s October 2017 illegal chromium discharge, surfing conditions on the Southend were among the best of the year,” the lawsuit states. “Surfrider members were surfing on the Southend that weekend and surfers were at the Portage Lakefront without any awareness of U.S. Steel’s illegal discharge.”

The lawsuit cites several incidents of surfers having adverse reactions to the polluted water, among them the cases of “a surfer in his thirties who suffered from shingles in his eye and two male surfers with urinary tract infections.”

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Areas of Focus: Environment
Producing and using energy damages people’s health and the environment. EPIC research is quantifying the social costs of energy choices and uncovering policies that help protect health while facilitating growth.
Environmental Health
Environmental Health
Energy and industrial processes introduce toxins into the environment. EPIC research is helping to educate policymakers and consumers on the social and economic costs of this pollution, and the potential...
Abrams Environmental Law Clinic
Abrams Environmental Law Clinic
The Abrams Environmental Law Clinic attempts to solve some of the most pressing environmental problems throughout Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the Great Lakes region.