PORTAGE, Ind. (CBS) — A brown cloud in Lake Michigan near Portage, Indiana came from “high levels of iron” discharged from a nearby U.S. Steel plant over the weekend.

That’s according to findings from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looking at the discoloration that closed down all the beaches at the Indiana Dunes National Park.

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The Indiana Department of Environmental Protection (IDEM) said the preliminary sample showed the reddish-orange cloud was caused by “high levels of iron” and the samples showed the discharge was “below the numeric effluent discharge limits contained in US Steel’s NPDES permit.”

The environmental agency said “surface water samples taken near the US Steel outfall do not indicate any health risks for people who may come into direct contact with the water along the Portage River Walk.”

As CBS 2 Investigator Megan Hickey reported U.S. Steel, the discolored water was seen coming from their plant.

Sometime Sunday night, the color appeared in the water. And it’s not the first time U.S. Steel and other nearby plants have found themselves in hot water over spills.

Indiana Dunes National Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz said there’s always a little bit of dark discoloration near the Burns Ditch.

“Any time of the year there are sentiments and nutrients running into Lake Michigan, it’s a darker color than the lake water,” Leibovitz said. “To see a darn plume is not unusual. But to see that bright orange red is what triggered the reaction.”

The discharge from the U.S. Steel plant in Portage, Indiana was reported around 6:30 on Sunday and all of the nearby Indiana Dunes National Park beaches were closed Monday as a result.

“Some of it has been found to be harmless and some of it has been found to be very dangerous so that’s why were being cautious,” Labovitz said.

Indiana American Water had to shut down its Ogden Dunes Treatment Plant, which is close to the plume.

“So when we hear that a company like US steel, which has had pollution problems in the past has another pollution problem again today, I mean that’s just a red flag.”

Howard Learner with the Environmental Law and Policy Center is well versed in U.S. Steel’s recent history of spills, which included a pipe failure in 2017 that caused the plant to dump 300 pounds of carcinogen called hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan. That led to a federal lawsuit.

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The CBS 2 Investigators have been investigating these types of spills for years. In August 2019, nearby ArcelorMittal, now known as Cleveland Cliffs, had a spill that killed 3,000 fish in the Little Calumet River, and closed beaches and a nearby drinking water intake facility.

“If you’re operating along the shores of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, you need to clean up your act and do it better,” Learner said.

It’s unclear if this spill is toxic to humans or wildlife. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said it will continue to investigate the incident. And that staff on site have not observed any dead fish or other wildlife. IDEM is waiting on water sample results.

Federal and state agencies are still investigating to determine the cause of the discharge and possible Clean Water Act compliance issues, as well as environmental impacts and further actions that are necessary to ensure future compliance. 

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources released a statement to CBS 2:

IDEM continues to investigate this incident. IDEM staff on site have not observed any dead fish or other wildlife. IDEM is waiting on water sample results.    

U.S. Steel also released a statement to CBS 2:

U.S. Steel shut down operations at its Midwest Plant as a precaution after experiencing an upset condition with the finishing line wastewater treatment plant. The plant operations will remain down until the condition is stabilized.

U.S. Steel made all appropriate notifications to regulatory agencies and some officials have been onsite, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Porter County.  We will continue to work with regulators and the community and will provide additional updates as they become available.

The company issued an updated statement late Monday on sampling results of chemical concentrations from the outfall:

Preliminary sampling results have shown that we remain in compliance with numeric permit limits. Analysis of the water from the outfall taken during the time of the incident showed elevated concentrations of iron causing the discoloration. There are no indications of permit level exceedances for hexavalent and total chromium, as those sampling results came in well below permit limits. The Midwest Plant was shut down as a precaution, and we continue to coordinate with agencies to collect additional samples to monitor the situation. We will provide more updates as they become available.

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Megan Hickey