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Section Of Indiana Dunes Closed Following Cyanide Spill Killing A Large Number Of Fish

PORTAGE, Ind. (CBS) — Going in the water was not allowed Friday afternoon at the beach in Portage, Indiana.

The problem was dangerous chemicals that spilled out into the Little Calumet River – leaving hundreds of fish dead as a direct result.

The National Parks Service shut down the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk beach area and waters out to 300 feet. The area is part of the Indiana Dunes National Park.

As CBS 2’s Tim McNicholas reported, Angela Talmadge was planning on enjoying a Friday in the water – starting at the Portage Marina, where she keeps her boat.

But when she arrived, the sights and the smells were not what she was used to.

“It’s just horrible – all these dead animals in here; all these dead fish. It’s so sad,” Talmadge said. “A lot of people use this waterway, you know, to go out to the lake.”

The Little Calumet River feeds into the waterway, and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management said the fish are dying due to a cyanide and ammonia-nitrogen spill.

The City of Portage blames ArcelorMittal, a steel manufacturer with a large plant bordering the dunes. ArcelorMittal took samples in the area of the spill and found high levels of cyanide and ammonia.

The levels “appear to be the cause or a significant contributing factor to the mortality of the fish,” IDEM said in a release.

ArcelorMittal released a statement Friday saying that despite having safeguards in place and conducting regular sampling, it apologizes and accepts responsibility for the spill.

The company said it experienced a failure at a blast furnace water recirculation system, and wastewater containing elevated levels of ammonia and cyanide were released. ArcelorMittal said its Burns Harbor facility is permitted to discharge wastewater containing low amounts of the chemicals, the blast furnace water system failure caused acceptable limits to be exceeded.

The blast furnace wastewater recirculating system has been fixed and normal operations have resumed, ArcelorMittal said.

ArcelorMittal noted that it also responded to an oil spill at the Port of Indiana Wednesday and says the quantity and source of the oil are both unknown, but it was maintained “in a timely manner.”

“ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor is committed to environmental compliance and takes both situations very seriously. We will continue working cooperatively with the agencies involved on each matter to identify the responsible party and/or source and address accordingly,” the company said in a statement.

ArcelorMittal declined to do an interview with CBS 2.

CBS 2 spotted contractors scooping fish out of the water Friday afternoon.

The National Parks Service said seven other dunes beaches will stay completely open this weekend, but at Portage, swimming is not allowed. The Parks Service said people can still boat in the area, but they should try not to touch the water.

Anyone who catches a fish near Portage should not eat it, the National Parks Service said.

The Little Calumet River is also closed between Highway 149 and Highway 249, according to a release from the Indiana Dunes National Park.

While those waterways are closed, trails in that area remain open.

Questions about local drinking water quality should be referred to individual service providers, according to the park.

“We have to get to the bottom of this,” said Natalie Johnson of the nonprofit Save the Dunes.

Johnson said ArcelorMittal needs to be held accountable, and the state of Indiana said the company will likely face fines.

“They should receive should be some kind of consequence for that, and certainly, that’s part of the accountability that we would be seeing to that happening,” Johnson said.

The State of Indiana is also facing criticism – from the City of Portage.

Portage Mayor John Cannon said the IDEM and ArcelorMittal knew of the problem on Monday, but did not inform the city until Thursday.

“The Mayor is calling for action to be taken,” according to a post on the city’s Facebook page. “Further, the City of Portage will be taking aggressive action with the EPA to ensure the breakdown of communication, like this, does not occur again.”

IDEM requested the facility start a spill response and increase monitoring of its outfalls to the Little Calumet River.

CBS 2 is reaching out to IDEM to find out why the City of Portage did not know about the situation sooner.

Meanwhile, we dug deeper into ArcelorMittal’s environmental records, and this was not the first issue.

In May, the company was fined more than $5 million for Environmental Protection Agency violations dating back to 2006.

The company had a “high-priority violation” at least two East Chicago facilities, and violations of the Clean Water Act at three Northwest Indiana locations – including two this year.

CBS 2 has learned that the Portage Port Authority, which is not part of city government, plans to sue ArcelorMittal.