Liberia: Penalizing ArcelorMittal for Pollution

— Implications for Liberia and a “serial polluter” whose deep pockets apparently prefer fines over environmental propriety.

The Liberia Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has levied fines totaling USD $110,000 against ArcelorMittal Liberia for several environmental infractions including water pollution in Nimba County. But what Liberians might not realize is that ArcelorMittal’s dismal record on environmental protection is anything but unique to Liberia.  

Before the EPA fine, the company was already being sued and penalized for its practice of environmental pollution, as several of the company’s mining operations in Canada, United States, South Africa, have been fined or subjected to other regulatory or legal action just in the last few years.

As recently as December 2021, the Canadian subsidiary of the steel giant was found guilty on more than 90 counts related to incidents that took place between 2011 and 2013 at its Mount Wright iron mine near Fermont, which is a large open pit mine in Canada. Harmful spills, “false or misleading” declarations, incomplete reports and omission of tests were among the charges. 

“ArcelorMittal committed a series of environmental violations a decade ago at the Mont-Wright mining complex on the North Shore,” a Quebec, Canada court ruled.  

And now, the EPA after conducting a hearing with the company at which AML acknowledged the violations and stipulated remedies -- as found the found the company liable for continued failure to adequately inform the EPA of changes to its operations that had a detrimental impact on the environment and health of communities.  

The EPA said “AML was also found liable for deliberate and unlawful” discharge of raw water sewage into nearby rivers and wetlands, resulting in ecological damage. 

According to the EPA, AML also failed to implement corrective actions dated July 27, 2021 mandating that the company obtain an environmental permit for the operations of its waste water treatment plant and related discharge.  

And as one industry observer noted, with such a record, AML is in no position to make threats of legal action against Liberia simply because the House of Representatives in its infinite wisdom called on the Executive Branch to renegotiate the terms of the third AML MDA to ensure that issues such as these and others that impact the public are fully addressed.  

Among several other findings, ArcelorMittal was also found guilty of “being responsible for discharging a harmful substance” into Webb Lake, south of the complex, “in waters where fish live.” 

The concentration of mine effluent - tailings that may contain toxic substances - exceeded the regulatory limit.  This was all outlined in a 74- page ruling from the Court in Canada, which also noted that ArcelorMittal received a warning a decade earlier. 

Also in Canada, on May 25, 2021, ArcelorMittal was convicted and fined $215,000 by a Court in Hamilton for permitting an emission for six consecutive minutes, which obstructed the passage of light by an average 20 percent or more, plus a victim fine surcharge of $53,750 totaling $268,750 in fines, and was given 90 days to pay the fine. 

In November 2020, The United States Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Indiana Department of Environmental Management found continued permit and self-monitoring violations at the ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor facility less than a month after Ohio-based Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. announced it was acquiring ArcelorMittal USA LLC in a $1.4 billion deal. 

 The self-monitoring violations continue a trend found in the months after the steel plant released large amounts of cyanide and ammonia into the Little Calumet River in August 2019 while ArcelorMittal owned and operated the plant, killing more than 3,000 fish and leading to the closure of public beaches on Lake Michigan.  Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., eventually completed its acquisition of ArcelorMittal US operations in December 2020 and made assurances to address all violations discovered by State and Federal regulators.

Indiana officials previously said ArcelorMittal had failed to immediately report the toxic leaks in 2019 and a subsequent lawsuit was filed by two major environmental organizations, calling ArcelorMittal a “Serial Polluter” and charged that the plant had repeatedly violated the U.S. Federal Clean Water Act with over 100 violations.  

That suit was eventually settled for USD $3 million by the company that had just acquired the plant from ArcelorMittal and also consented to transfer 127 acres it owns to a land trust for future conservation uses. The land is adjacent to the Indiana Dunes National Park and has an appraised value of about $2 million. 

In Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2017 along with the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection announced a settlement with ArcelorMittal Monessen, LLC (ArcelorMittal) for air quality violations occurring from 2014 to 2017. The settlement included a $1.5 million civil penalty, improved monitoring, and other actions.  According to Pennsylvania DEP, ArcelorMittal restarted the Monessen, Westmoreland County coke plant in April 2014 following a five-year “hot idle” period. Opacity (an indication of combustion problems) and other emission violations were observed almost immediately after the restart. DEP documented more than 120 opacity, fugitive dust, pushing emissions (occurring when the coked coal is removed from the oven), malodor, and other violations in Notices of Violation. Additional violations were reported by EPA and ArcelorMittal.

As part of that settlement with ArcelorMittal, State and Federal regulators each received half of the $1.5 million civil penalty for violations at the Monessen Plant.  ArcelorMittal paid an additional $300,000 through a separate agreement with PennEnvironment, a non-profit organization to fund a community environmental project advanced by the organization. The funds were to be administered by the Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, and established a Vehicle Emission Reduction Fund, providing grants to local governments, schools, and nonprofits for projects in Monessen, Donora, and Carroll Townships to improve air quality by reducing vehicle emissions. 

In June 2019, ArcelorMittal was criminally charged for environmental pollution in South Africa at its Vanderbijlpark plant, south of Johannesburg, and the lawsuit outlined three offenses committed by the Company.  Two of the charges against ArcelorMittal dated as far back as November 2013, when the company allegedly “unlawfully and intentionally conducted a listed activity without an atmospheric emission license”. The other charge is for failing to “comply with the condition of the atmospheric emission license” in 2016.  In the latter case, the company’s coke-making plant reportedly released more hydrogen sulfide than it is legally allowed to. ArcelorMittal settled that case in 2020 for R3.64 million South African Rand.

According to an official, who prefers anonymity in order to speak freely, the idea of a “serial polluter”, as coined by environmental groups to describe ArcelorMittal, suggests that the millions of U.S. dollars paid in settlements to environmental protection agencies around the world might be a small price for the steel giant to pay in exchange for the irreparable damage it is causing to communities and ecosystems. “The EPA of Liberia should continue to closely monitor the operations of ArcelorMittal and work to protect the health and safety of communities impacted in the concession areas, given the history of AML not only in Liberia, but in several countries where it operates. If need be, stiffer fines are necessary.”