Hexavalent chromium may sound sinister and make a great name for a shiny villain that fights super heroes, but the real element has been used for nearly 100 years to make things look cool. That custom Harley that just rumbled past on the highway may have a bunch of “show chrome” plated parts, for example.
Perhaps more importantly, non-decorative “hard chrome” plating can be found on thousands of other things. The train that you and the guy on the Harley are waiting to pass - full of parts that are plated with hard chrome.
The modern world is chockfull of all kinds of neat stuff that we take for granted, but pay a lot of attention to when things go bad. Such was the case when hexavalent chromium got away from an industrial process at a mill in nearby Portage along the shore of Lake Michigan a few days ago. And some of it may have ended up in Burns Ditch, and thus, the lake.
The EPA is the lead agency investigating, but nobody seems to be sure how much was spilled, or if it was contained. Hexavalent chromium is nasty enough to warrant beach closures, and as of this writing, these included Cowles Beach Bog on Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore property, as well as West Beach and the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk. The National Lakeshore has more information at their website, www.nps.gov/indu/index.htm (see alerts at top of page), and on the official lakeshore Facebook page.
If all goes well, when things like this happen, somebody notices and takes action. That is certainly what occurred in this case from what I’ve learned. That doesn’t surprise me as I have worked in quality control in the steel industry in the past. Between automated as well as visual detection, it’s difficult to miss much. Though it may sound complicated, industrial processes related to steel are very simple. That said, these processes occur on a scale that is hardly fathomable by most people that have never witnessed it up close and personal.
Many of our family, friends and neighbors work at the mills and their related manufacturing facilities, and yet, the vast majority have no idea what the process truly entails. Suffice it to say, that is magnificent and modern society would not exist without it. Unfortunately, bad things occasionally happen when modern man does his thing.
I doubt anybody sits around and says, “Oh well, the solution to pollution is dilution…let's go get some beer.” This is serious business and being an idiot is potentially deadly. Before you share a Facebook post by some recent college graduate anti-capitalist “journalist” that has it out for anything that doesn’t include organic fruits and berries and cuddly animals (…that talk), think about the guys and gals that do a pretty darn good job of making sure it doesn’t happen more often. You think they go to work hoping the worst-case scenario occurs on their shift?
The aerial views taken from news choppers that allegedly show the contamination are bunk. It’s been raining a lot lately and the creeks are muddy folks. Ask any pilot or fishing guide, turbid water that drains into clean water looks like coffee being poured into a glass of water. Those perch “kills” you read about weren’t kills at all. Those are naturally-occurring “perch boils” (don’t ask, I have a Biology degree and I don’t get it either).
Sure, there's always room for improvement, but I believe most Americans would be utterly shocked at how well this country does at making sure that more environmental disasters don’t occur. Sadly, the same cannot be said for places like China where hexavalent chromium is dumped into water with alarming frequency. Dead animals, fish kills and withered crops are the result where these environmental atrocities occur. I’d guess a half-dozen news choppers aren’t clamoring for the big scoop over the top of some village along a river in China where people are dying of cancer.
Interestingly, hexavalent chromium is also found naturally all around us. While it's often associated with contamination from industrial processes, such as the famous Hinkley, California, incident that was the basis for the film Erin Brockovich, the element also occurs naturally in well and surface water, soil and sediment. It was here long before we were.
Another element that contaminates water is mercury. Often associated with areas that have mining activity, such as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where some lakes have “no-consumption” advisories for all fish species, mercury also occurs naturally at toxic levels. The problem with mercury is methylmercury, which is what forms when its reacts with bacteria in water, soil and plants. So, it’s pretty much everywhere. Mercury is referred to as a “bio-accumulative environmental toxicant” and it’s particularly harmful during the developmental stages. Fish absorb it where it occurs.
That may not mean much to most folks, but it means an awful lot to the Anglin family. My son, Mitch, had congenital issues often associated with methylmercury exposure during development. If not for the incredibly-watchful eye and professionalism of technicians and doctors in La Porte, South Bend and Indianapolis, Mitchell would have died. Nice try Mercury, but he’s a stud now - epic win for humans.
How did my wife Angie end up being exposed to excessive levels of mercury? Well, she was born and raised in a region of Michigan’s UP that has the highest levels of methylmercury found anywhere in North America. Apparently even after she moved to Colorado, it stuck with her. Then she fell in love with a fisherman who often brought fish home for dinner from the same Upper Peninsula waters near where she spent her childhood. I can’t help but to wonder if it was my fault.
Of course, that’s all conjecture on my part, but the story correlates perfectly with the facts. It’s tough to quantify such things and certainly takes a long time to make the connection. From my conversations with one of the world’s great pediatric urologists who also did the lengthy surgeries on my son, mercury is a common theme that connects the dots.
In the case of the spill in Portage, the experts are working on it diligently. There is no alternative when it comes to a heavily-recreated body of water that also happens to be the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people and the home of countless species of fish and wildlife. Thankfully, we live in the USA and we care.
Jay Anglin writes a weekly outdoors column for The Herald-Argus. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.