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We Gotta Do Better.

Submitted by: Matt Werner Feature photo: Karen Cercone

By now you’ve heard that ArcelorMittal exceeded the amount of cyanide and ammonia it’s permitted to release into the Little Calumet River, yet the alert came late and information is difficult to find. We gotta do better.

One-hundred-twenty years ago, biologists and conservationists began traveling to the southern shore of Lake Michigan. They marveled at the beauty and ecological diversity of the area, where marshes filled with amphibians sat alongside sand sprouting cacti. U.S. Steel saw a vast space of uninterrupted acreage, cheap land it could churn up, flatten, and build a steel factory and a city to house its employees. Gary, Indiana, was born, swelled to 180,000 people, all filled with prosperity and good will!

Burns Ditch in 1949

Eleven million cubic feet of sand were moved to construct the facility and who cared about sand? A few miles down the coast, box cars carted away the great Hoosier Slide, a 200 feet tall sand dune along Trail Creek in Michigan City. It had been a landmark for Native Americans, early explorers, and commercial vessels for centuries, flattened to make glass jars long ago broken and sitting in buried trash piles. A coal-burning power plant now sits in its place.

Although they took our land and dunes, they created jobs and prosperity. US Steel employed 30,000 workers. Bethlehem Steel added 30,000 more. Supporting industries and businesses popped up everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of people moved to the area. 

Things changed.

Automation deleted 85% of the mill jobs. Gary’s population fell to 80,000 residents. Bethlehem went belly-up and thousands of retirees got pension and health insurance cuts. Toxic brownfields developed. Waterways grew so polluted, no human would dare fish, swim, or take a canoe through them.  

Sand dunes can be flattened, streams can be redirected, widened, deepened, buildings can be erected in the wink of an eye.

Once the damage is done, it takes years upon years and untold sums of money to try to restore what once was there. 

It’s not cheap. It’s not easy. It takes diligence. It requires a good partnership. The National Parks, The Department of Natural Resources, Save the Dunes, Izaak Walton League, corporations, steel mills, state and federal agencies, all working together.

Nature and Industry living side by side. (Photo taken in 2015, before beach erosion)

The documentary film Shifting Sands highlighted the new goal—sustainability. Industry, nature, and people cohabitate, living side-by-side in harmony. The plan was working. Slowly, but surely.

The Calumet River, once an open toxic sewer, now contains natural fauna including orchids and a diverse array of fish. An increasing number of visitors are coming to northwest Indiana to explore nature. The Indiana Dunes National Park is the seventh most visited in the country. The Indiana State Park draws millions too. In 2015, the economic impact exceeded $400 million in Porter County alone.  

You can imagine the frustration everyone felt when they learned that excessive amounts of cyanide and ammonia flowed from ArcelorMittal into the Calumet River as early as August 11 and August 13—at least two and four days before IDEM notified anyone.

People were fishing in those waters and why wouldn’t they? They trusted the government, they trusted environmental and conservation groups, they trusted those steel mills to tell them if something was wrong.

IDEM encourages people to check @IDEMnews on Twitter for updated news, yet there isn’t a single mention of cyanide spilled into a river that flows into Lake Michigan. Finding information about the spill on IDEM’s website is difficult. If we can’t get this information from the very organization charged with providing “quality environmental oversight” for Hoosiers, where can we get it? Who’s ensuring we don’t catch and fry a fish swimming in cyanide?

ArcelorMittal has apologized. A spokesperson wrote, “ArcelorMittal knows that we have a responsibility to all stakeholders to be a trusted user of natural resources and we sincerely apologize for falling short on this responsibility.”

That’s a start, but let’s do better. Tell us how much cyanide was dumped, what was the exact cause, and what can be done to prevent this from happening again. While we’re at it, let’s work together to figure out how we can reduce the gallons of cyanide and ammonia released into the river to zero.

The Region has come a long way and it can go a lot further. We gotta do better. 

We need to work on a faster, better alert system for incidents like this! How can you help? Please email Save the Dunes at It is imperative you continue to ask questions and demand prompt answers for the sake of human health and the environment. 

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