Hexavalent Chromium sounds nasty because it IS nasty.
Chances are you’ve been exposed to it in a small degree. Stainless steel and chrome. Treated lumber. Fabric dyes. Thousands of products, made here and overseas contain it. Hoosiers near any manufacturing plant or waterway (which means nearly every Hoosier) have been exposed to it, and most drinking water siphoned from Lake Michigan contains trace amounts.
A recognized carcinogen, the notoriety of hexavalent chromium is such that it became the invisible antagonist in 2000’s Erin Brockovich. Despite its notoriety, the EPA has yet to establish a maximum contaminant level (MCL), leaving control and monitoring to under-funded state or municipal agencies.
These feeble restrictions allowed US Steel to spill hexavalent chromium into Lake Michigan twice this last year with little more than bureaucratic slaps on the wrist. The first occurred in April, when fishermen alerted authorities to an over 300-pound spill. US Steel apologized, monitored then dismissed concern and beach closures as “absurd.”
Last month another, smaller spill occurred. In fact, US Steel officials didn’t feel it was necessary to alert the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) to the second spill right away. When they did, they requested it be kept “confidential.” The IDEM did just that. News of the spill only came to light after being unearthed by an inquisitive University of Chicago law student. Since this discovery, US Steel has pledged to correct its error by tweaking equipment and retraining employees.
Right now, that’s where the story stands. No doubt it will be buried and forgotten until the next spill comes along.