BURNS HARBOR -- A settlement that requires one of the nation's largest steel mills to test soil for toxins after cleaning up more than 3 million tons of waste is being hailed as a victory by environmentalists, but they say the two-year fight that led to the deal illustrates deep problems within Indiana's environmental agency.
State environmental regulators, steel mill owner ArcelorMittal and an environmental group reached a settlement in late July that will require the mill to test the soil after removing slag and other waste that piled up in lakeside heaps over two decades along Lake Michigan.
Many environmentalists say the waste piles are a glaring example of how Indiana's elected leaders view environmental regulations as obstacles to business.
They criticize the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's enforcement wing and a "streamlined" permitting process they say allows polluters to avoid more stringent reviews.
They've also questioned the appointments of key agency officials. Thomas Easterly, who was appointed by Gov. Mitch Daniels to lead IDEM in 2005, previously worked for Bethlehem Steel, ArcelorMittal's previous owners. A former coal industry lobbyist and attorney was appointed in 2009 to oversee IDEM's legal department.
Easterly and Daniels "lobotomized that agency," said Larry Davis, an ArcelorMittal electrical worker who has worked at the Burns Harbor plant for 34 years. He is a former member of a number of environmental groups and has tried to push the plant to find ways to recycle its waste, rather than dump it.
Valparaiso attorney Kim Ferraro, who represents the Hoosier Environmental Council and Save the Dunes, said much of the ArcelorMittal waste was dumped during Easterly's tenure _ some of it illegally.
"To have the person in charge of a state agency regulating industry with that kind of history -- that should raise a cause for concern," she told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/OoYTT7 ).
IDEM spokeswoman Amy Hartsock said the dump site dates from the 1980s, well before Easterly joined Bethlehem Steel in 1994.
She said that under Easterly's watch, IDEM has gotten most Indiana communities to develop long-term plans to address sewage overflows into waterways and that, for the first time, every Indiana county is meeting U.S. Clean Air Act standards.
"Our commissioner is committed to environmental protection," Hartsock said.
Hartsock said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency performed tests on the piles as recently as 2009 and found them to be nonhazardous.
Ferraro bristled at that, saying IDEM's own documents show the piles of waste along Lake Michigan contain lead, arsenic, cadmium and other heavy metals.
"To say that arsenic is not toxic is ludicrous," she said.
Under the settlement, the company also must test the soil once the remaining 1.8 million pounds of sludge is removed and make sure no toxins remain.
ArcelorMittal officials told The Star they are "pleased to have come to an agreement with the parties on material storage" at the Burns Harbor plant.
Ferraro contends it takes complaints from the public to get polluters to clean up their act, an assertion IDEM disputes.
"I feel like I'm doing IDEM's job sometimes," Ferraro said.
IDEM officials say they inspected the site in February 2008, two years before the environmental groups filed suit, and determined the mill owner needed to find a different way to manage the waste. ArcelorMittal constructed a landfill for the material.
Hartsock, the IDEM spokeswoman, said the process worked.
"We respond to complaints," Hartsock said. "It's a normal part of our day. We invite people to report concerns and invite things to come to our attention."