Paul Grenchick was surfing with friends along the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan on Thursday evening. Little did he know, just up the river, thousands of fish were dying, and investigators were struggling to determine exactly how much cyanide and ammonia had flowed into the lake after a spill at an industrial plant earlier in the week.
As soon as the group got out the water, it got a notification about the chemical spill.
"We all were like, Oh my God, we all were just in that water for three and a half hours and nobody knew about it," said Grenchick, a 46-year-old who has lived in the area around Ogden Dunes, Indiana, all his life.
Others might have been dipping into the water for days without knowing. Reports suggest that the chemical spill might have occurred Monday or earlier. The beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park, which includes Ogden Dunes, weren't closed until Thursday night. In the meantime, thousands of fish were turning belly up in the same water people were swimming and fishing in.
Officials later confirmed that ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg-based steel and mining company upstream from Lake Michigan on the Little Calumet River, was responsible for the spill. In a statement, ArcelorMittal said a "failure at the blast furnace water recirculation system" caused water laced with cyanide and ammonia to flow from the facility into the river and out into Lake Michigan.
John Cannon, the mayor of Portage, Indiana, told the Washington Post that his office didn't know about the spill until days after it happened, a delay for which he blames the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. But ultimately, he said, he "holds ArcelorMittal responsible" for the spill and the damage it caused.
On Monday, the IDEM received a report about a "distressed fish in the East Arm of the Little Calumet River," which is where the ArcelorMittal plant is located. According to a statement, the department investigated and confirmed that there were fish in distress. On Tuesday evening, more complaints flowed in about dead fish in the river. By Wednesday, the agency "observed a significant fish die off had occurred," but said it did not yet know the cause.
On Thursday, after the IDEM published a statement indicating that it was investigating the die-off, ArcelorMittal notified the IDEM that the company "violated its daily maximum limits" for the amount of cyanide and ammonia released into the river.
At that point, the agency says it "alerted local media, environmental organisations, and local officials including Indiana American Water and the mayor of Portage."
Cannon says the alert didn't come soon enough. He and his staff went to the river to examine the dead fish Thursday morning. The IDEM was there when they arrived, he said, holding "a bag of dead fish." According to Cannon, the representatives from the IDEM told them it would release a statement that day with details about what occurred. Cannon said that they did not receive any information from the IDEM until Friday morning and that it was "very vague."
On Monday, the IDEM and the Indiana Department of Natural Re