What does the Great Lakes surfer endure? Frigid air and water temperatures, limited swell opportunities, and occasional ice chunks in the lineup, all braved with frozen wetsuits and frozen smiles. But the latest challenge might be too much to bear. Dangerous levels of the chemical hexavalent chromium–which can cause stomach cancer, fertility and child developmental problems, and liver and kidney disorders– have appeared in the waters of Lake Michigan's Portage waterfront, a well-known stretch of beach frequented by surfers. Worse yet, this is the second illegal dump of the carcinogen in less than twelve months. The spills have prompted the National Park Service to close four Portage beaches.
In April, The United States Steel Corporation (U.S. Steel) let wastewater containing the chromium compound seep into area groundwater, flowing into Portage waters as documented by the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School and the Surfrider Foundation. In spite of U.S. Steel's pledge to take greater care with such pollutants in the future, little change was required by the Illinois EPA.
A few weeks ago, an additional 350 pounds of chromium-infused water flowed into the south-end break from the same Portage-adjacent manufacturing plant. This time, however, greater action is being pursued to assure that these careless practices will not happen again. Surfrider has filed an "Intent to Sue" notification directed towards U.S. Steel for "repeated Clean Water Act violations." This notice gives the steel manufacturer sixty days to reach a settlement and move towards a solution before the organization officially takes legal action.
A limited number of surfable locations exist for the typical Lake Michigan surfer, but even so, Ryan Gerard, owner of Lake Michigan-based Third Coast Surf Shop, explained that surfing near Portage is "just not worth the risk of getting sick. And it sucks to get out of the water with oil stains on the bottom of your feet or boots."
This sentiment is shared by Mitch McNeil, chairman of the Chicago Surfrider chapter, who has surfed the Great Lakes since he was twelve and refuses to go out at Portage. "Too spooked by the stories I'd been hearing of surfers getting sick," McNeil stated.
When McNeil heard of the new situation (just months after he had to deal with the April dump) he said that "alarm bells went off."
McNeil says the problem isn’t limited to U.S. Steel. He cites more institutionalized problems stemming from a lack of government regulation, explaining that "industries there are allowed to put stuff in the water. That's why they're all clustered there in NW Indiana. Been that way for over 70 years. Used to be way, way worse before the Clean Water Act of '72."
"We suffer the effects of dirty water,” McNeil states. “But, in this case, we're not going quietly. This spill is beyond the pale.” He suggests U.S. Steel should not only receive a monetary fine, but be forced to make fundamental changes to the way they "go about their daily business" including "better safety measures, better equipment, better oversight, and better deployment of qualified Human Resources."
Even if an agreement is reached, however, McNeil and others confirm that they will probably never again surf in the Portage area. Over at Third Coast Surf Shop, Gerard finds himself in the same position. He says that even though he has been surfing the Portage area for about 15 years, "it's just not worth it anymore. There are too many gory stories of surfers getting sick."