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Report: More flooding, erosion on Lake Michigan could spread pollution

A map of the former State Line coal plant site in Hammond showing where the site is most vulnerable to flooding.
Courtesy of Environmental Law & Policy Center
A map of the former State Line coal plant site in Hammond shows where the site is most vulnerable to flooding.

Extreme water levels and stronger storms are not only threatening homes and beaches along Lake Michigan — they could also send toxic waste into communities and the lake. That’s according to a new report by the Environmental Law & Policy Center.

Indiana is a big manufacturing state and several industrial facilities are right on the lake. ELPC executive director Howard Learner said that makes them — and any pollution they might leave behind — vulnerable to things like flooding and erosion.

“The three major steel mills in northwest Indiana, the BP oil refinery and the other industrial facilities were built on the assumption of yesterday's news — you know, outdated information on what Lake Michigan water levels would be," he said.

Due to climate change, we've been seeing years where water levels on Lake Michigan are much higher and some where they're lower. There is also less ice on the lake during the winter — which means buildings along the lakefront have less of a buffer from harsh waves during storms.

“These facilities need to take a step back and reassess whether their facilities have structural integrity, and are resilient and safe and sound, in light of what the scientists are telling us," Learner said.

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Learner said environmental regulators also need to clean up pollution along the lake and move hazardous material away from the lake before a disaster happens.

Learner said Indiana could use federal funds to help. In February, the Biden administration announced it would use $1 billion from the infrastructure law to clean up polluted sites along the Great Lakes.

The ELPC report looked at 12 case studies along Lake Michigan, including two in Indiana — U.S. Steel Gary Works and the site of the former State Line coal plant in Hammond. Learner said both sites extend out into Lake Michigan — which make them especially susceptible to flooding.

The report said it's not clear if all of the contamination has been removed from soil at the old plant — including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which have been linked to cancer.

U.S. Steel Gary Works has barriers to protect it from the lake — but if those failed during extreme weather, the northeast portion of the site could flood. These barriers are also not always the best solution for the lakeshore.

"Lake Michigan is, in effect, a big bathtub," Learner said. "You can push the water in one direction to get it away from your facility — that means it's going to somebody else."

The report said U.S. Steel Gary Works has also had several air, water and hazardous waste violations in the past — which could mean there is contamination in the soil, groundwater and surface water at the site. The Environmental Protection Agency said the company is investigating the contamination.

Learner said communities along Lake Michigan should also consider investing in green infrastructure to help slow floodwaters. Things like permeable pavement in cities and wetland restoration along the lake.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.