The Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on steel mill pollution. In Gary, Indiana, that may not be enough. -

The Environmental Protection Agency is cracking down on steel mill pollution. In Gary, Indiana, that may not be enough.

Kimmie Gordon remembers many fathers who worked in steel mills. They were people like her stepfather, who would drive every day to the East Side of Chicago or to Burns Harbor, Indiana where they would toil in the heat of huge furnaces, burning coal and iron ore to produce steel. The work paid well but the work was sloppy. A thin layer of black soot seemed to cover everything they owned, even the insides of their lungs.

Gordon didn’t know it when she was growing up in the 1980s, but the pollutants that collected in the folds of her workers’ clothes were in the air all over Gary, the predominantly black city in northern Indiana where she grew up. Today, the stretch of cities along the state’s border with Illinois is home to four of the nation’s most polluting steel mills, which together account for 90 percent of the industry’s emissions, and throw hundreds of thousands of pounds of toxic heavy metals like lead and chromium into the air each year.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules for steel mills, aimed at reducing toxic emissions by 79 tons annually, a 15 percent drop from current levels, and requiring US Steel and Cleveland Cliffs, the only companies that operate the nation’s 11 steel mills, to measure concentrations of cancer-causing chromium along the boundaries of their sites. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the new rules will also reduce particulate pollution by 500 tons annually.

It is the first step the agency has ever taken to reduce emissions from leaks and equipment failures at steel mills and follows three separate lawsuits over 20 years. Local advocates Grist spoke to said the proposed measures, while welcome, are not nearly enough to keep their communities safe. Gary leads the nation in the amount of toxic industrial emissions per square mile.

“The EPA could have done better because we’re in a crisis,” said Gordon, who serves as director of Brown Faces Green Spaces, a local environmental organization. “This 15 percent reduction means nothing to the people of Gary. Our needles are way beyond red.”

The city of Gary was built around the steel industry. Once a sleepy stretch of sand dunes on the lower edge of Lake Michigan, the area has transformed over the course of the early 20th century into a bustling mill town. US Steel has been the driver of this transformation, flattening hundreds of square miles of dunes and lumber to erect labyrinths of furnaces and industrial furnaces that spew black smoke into the air. After World War II, many white families moved to the suburbs and factory jobs declined, sowing the seeds of the city’s decline. Today, Gary’s population is 68,000, less than half its 1960 high of 178,000, and nearly a third of the population lives in poverty, according to US Census data. Toxic emissions remain.

Steel production is a highly polluting enterprise that involves burning coal and combining the product, known as coke, with iron ore in a furnace before melting it all into liquid solid. Chemicals released from this process include heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, as well as fine particles that can settle inside the lungs when inhaled. These pollutants have been linked to various types of cancers and chronic diseases, and many studies have demonstrated links between steel mill emissions and poor heart and lung function.

Advocates sued the agency after it proposed the first standards for steel mills in 2003, arguing that those rules failed to control the release of carcinogens from several highly polluting types of equipment at the facilities. In response, the agency agreed to reconsider its proposal, but after years passed without any sign of a revised rule, advocates sued again in 2015. When the EPA issued a new rule in 2020, many residents were disappointed to find that it still did not control many of the cancer-causing pollutants released by steel mills. They filed a third lawsuit later that year. Successive delays in regulation have enabled pollution to build up in communities near the mills, as heavy metals in the air fall to the ground and build up in the soil, exposing residents, generation after generation.

“Their negligence over the past two or three decades has caused enormous damage,” Pugh said. “Gary, Indiana has a 100-year lead build-up because the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t done anything about it.”

The EPA previously said it was not required to develop new emissions standards for unregulated steel mill pollutants, an assertion a federal circuit court shot down in 2020. In an email, an agency spokesperson, Sheila Powell, told Grist that the newly proposed amendments would address the regulatory loopholes exposed by that court decision.

A man operates a furnace at US Steel's Gary Works in January 1945
A man operates a furnace at US Steel’s Gary Works in January 1945
Otto Batemann via Getty Images

The rule proposed by the agency on July 12 would limit pollution from five previously unregulated sources inside steel mills, such as open pits where toxic by-products of smelting ore are dumped and valves through which polluted air is released to depressurize equipment. Once implemented, the regulations are expected to reduce toxic emissions by 15 percent, from 520 tons per year to 440 tons per year. Pew told Grist that this number is particularly disappointing because EPA research indicates that much greater emissions reductions are possible, at minimal cost to operators.

The EPA projects that reducing toxic emissions in the proposed rule would cost these two companies about $2.8 million annually to implement, an amount that local advocates like Gordon would consider paltry. US Steel and Cleveland Cliffs had combined sales of $44 billion last year.

Amanda Malkovsky, a spokeswoman for US Steel told Grist in an email that the company was disappointed with the proposal, which would have “exorbitant costs to implement and provide very little, if any, environmental benefit,” she said. “US Steel is committed to environmental compliance and works with the Environmental Protection Agency to establish regulations that are technically and economically feasible, while providing an environmental benefit.”

Cleveland Cliffs did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

About half of the emissions from steel production are directed into tall industrial smokestacks, while the remainder is released at ground level through pressure valves and cracks in equipment. In a 2019 note, the EPA estimated that operators could cut 65 percent of this latest set of emissions — 190 tons annually in total — simply by implementing stricter work practice standards. For example, the document cited a century-old protocol that could be used to prevent “slippage,” a term for the condition in which raw materials fail to descend smoothly into kilns, resulting in high-pressure conditions that cause valves to open, releasing toxic “dust clouds” into the air. Although the agency determined that slips should occur no more than four times each month, data provided by mill operators indicates that some mills average more than twice that amount.

The proposed rule would require mill operators to set up monitors to measure levels of the toxic heavy metal chromium at the boundaries of their sites. If concentrations exceed the regulatory ‘action level’, operations are required to provide an analysis that determines the cause. Advocates from mill towns told Grist they appreciated the data collection requirements, but noted that steel mills emit more than a dozen different toxic chemicals, mainly lead, and questioned why the agency would limit its monitoring efforts to a single mineral.

“There are a bunch of things[in the proposal]where it’s like, ‘Oh, you did great,’ but there are a lot of chemicals we’re exposed to,” said Qiam Ansari, an environmental advocate in Clairton, Pennsylvania, a small city in the Monongahela River Valley where US Steel operates a mill and a separate coke plant. Since moving to the Valley, he said he has had asthma attacks that make it hard to spend time outdoors.

Powell, an EPA spokesman, told Greste that the agency collected air samples at four steel mills over a six-month period and found that lead concentrations were well below the national standard of 0.15 micrograms per cubic meter of air.

A special EPA analysis indicates that 27 percent of people who live within 3 miles of operating steel mills in the country are black, making pollution an environmental justice issue, a term for the disproportionate pollution borne by low-income and communities of color across the country. The black population of Gary and Clairton is 78 percent and 41 percent, respectively, much higher than the 14 percent of the US population.

It could take years before the proposed rule takes effect. Once it is published in the Federal Register, the EPA will accept written comments from the public for 60 days. The agency is then required to consider the feedback and update the rules based on the feedback before finalizing it. Along the way, you may encounter legal challenges from advocates or industry groups.

In May, Adam Ortiz, EPA director for the mid-Atlantic region, which includes Pennsylvania, traveled to Clairton to hear from residents’ concerns about pollution from steel production. Ansari said that after reviewing the details of the agency’s newly proposed benchmarks, he believes Ortiz’s visit will come off as little.

“I am constantly disappointed and lose faith in our regulators whenever I do this work,” he said.