Audubon Monitors Contamination at Little Calumet River as Shorebird Migration Begins

August 20, 2019

Early last week local community members of Northwest Indiana began reporting dead fish in the East Branch of the Little Calumet River to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), which – along with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) – initiated investigations. 

On Friday ArcelorMittal publicly announced an incident at their Burns Harbor facility that resulted in the release of excessive levels of ammonia and cyanide into the river, which flows into Lake Michigan. IDNR has since estimated that 3,000 fish were killed as a result of the spill. Audubon Great Lakes became aware of the incident late last week is now monitoring the situation closely. We are in close contact with partners in the region, including Save the Dunes. As of Sunday, levels of both ammonia and cyanide have dropped back below levels permitted by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Northwest Indiana is an important breeding ground and migratory stopover site for many birds that depend on clean water. Species of conservation concern, such as Black-crowned Night Heron, Least Bittern, Osprey, and Bald Eagle all consume fish from local waterways. Waterfowl and wading birds such as Mallard, Wood Duck, Common Gallinule, Virginia Rail, and American Coot consume small fish, aquatic invertebrates and/or aquatic vegetation. August is also the start of shorebird migration and the Little Calumet is an important stopover site for birds such as Greater Yellowlegs, Solitary Sandpiper, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Ruddy Turnstone that mostly eat invertebrates in shallow water, shorelines and mud flats. Both birds and people rely on this water source and while we do not yet know the extent of the contamination or the damage it may cause, we are concerned about contaminated drinking water for people and contaminated food sources for birds.

In the last months, Audubon Great Lakes and its partners have initiated work to restore wetlands for Northwest Indiana’s wildlife and communities along the Little Calumet River, approximately 10 miles west of Burns Harbor. While this work is upstream from the point of contamination and we currently have no reason to believe that it will have a direct impact on these wetlands, waterbirds in the region have been observed feeding on dead fish. Dunes-Calumet Audubon Society is closely monitoring the affected area for potential impacts to birds. 

As the situation becomes clearer, we will continue to work with our partners in determining any steps that we may need to take.

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse communities in conservation action. A nonprofit conservation organization since 1905, Audubon believes in a world in which people and wildlife thrive. Audubon Great Lakes is a regional office of Audubon, learn more at and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

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