See more of the story

Paul Grenchick was surfing with friends along the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan last Thursday. Little did he know, just up the river, thousands of fish were dying, and investigators were struggling to determine exactly how much cyanide and ammonia had flowed into the lake after a spill at an industrial plant earlier in the week.

As soon as the group got out of the water, it got a notification about the chemical spill.

"We all were like, Oh my God, we all were just in that water for three and a half hours and nobody knew about it," said Grenchick, 46, who has lived in the area around Ogden Dunes, Ind., all his life.

Others might have been dipping into the water for days without knowing. Reports suggest that the chemical spill might have occurred Monday or earlier. The beaches at Indiana Dunes National Park, which includes Ogden Dunes, weren't closed until Thursday night. In the meantime, thousands of fish were turning belly up in the same water people were swimming and fishing in.

Officials later confirmed that ArcelorMittal, a Luxembourg-based steel and mining company upstream from Lake Michigan on the Little Calumet River, was responsible for the spill. ArcelorMittal said a "failure at the blast furnace water recirculation system" caused water laced with cyanide and ammonia to flow from the facility into the river and out into Lake Michigan.

Portage, Ind., Mayor John Cannon said that his office didn't know about the spill until days after it happened, a delay for which he blames the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM). But ultimately, he said, he "holds ArcelorMittal responsible" for the spill and the damage it caused.

'Distressed fish'

On Monday, the state agency received a report about a "distressed fish in the East Arm of the Little Calumet River," which is where the ArcelorMittal plant is located. The department investigated and confirmed that there were fish in distress. On Tuesday evening, more complaints flowed in about dead fish in the river. By Wednesday, the agency "observed a significant fish die-off had occurred," but said it did not yet know the cause.

On Thursday, after the IDEM published a statement indicating that it was investigating the die-off, ArcelorMittal notified the IDEM that the company "violated its daily maximum limits" for the amount of cyanide and ammonia released into the river.

At that point, the agency says it "alerted local media, environmental organizations, and local officials including Indiana American Water and the mayor of Portage."

Cannon said that the alert didn't come soon enough. He and his staff went to the river to examine the dead fish Thursday morning. The IDEM was there when they arrived, he said, holding "a bag of dead fish." According to Cannon, IDEM representatives told them it would release a statement that day with details. Cannon said that they did not receive any information from the IDEM until Friday morning and that it was "very vague."

On Monday, the IDEM and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources said it directed ArcelorMittal to sample and test the water from the Little Calumet River to the mouth of Lake Michigan. The tests showed elevated cyanide in the water, but the results were below "the maximum contaminant level" determined by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The results of ArcelorMittal's tests along the Lake Michigan shoreline are pending.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the effects of cyanide depends on the amount a person is exposed to, the way the person was exposed to it (breathing a gas vs. drinking it in water), and the duration of exposure. Symptoms of minor to moderate exposure can include dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing and heart rate and weakness.

"While we are still awaiting official results from previous day's sampling events," ArcelorMittal, "we can confirm that the most recently available data shows that ammonia is now within permitted levels and cyanide levels have been decreasing daily and currently are significantly below the levels experienced during the initial release."

'Promptly reported'

ArcelorMittal has not shared publicly the amount of cyanide and ammonia released, except to say that it was "elevated." It has not said when the blast-furnace failure occurred. The company said it "promptly reported these exceedances to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management."

"ArcelorMittal knows that we have a responsibility to all stakeholders to be a trusted user of natural resources," the company said, "and we sincerely apologize for falling short on this responsibility."

Cannon said he's asking the IDEM and ArcelorMittal for quicker notification when a spill happens, so they can tell boaters, fishermen and swimmers that there may have been a spill, and to avoid going in the water or eating the fish that come out of it until they confirm the severity of the situation.

"That's all we're asking them to do," Cannon said. "Not wait four days and suddenly fish are belly-up in our marina."

Though Grenchick, the Ogden Dunes resident, has not felt any adverse effects, he said he has a physical scheduled for next week. He said he will bring up the potential exposure with his doctors.