MARTINSVILLE, Indiana -- Grand hotels and health spas known as sanitariums used to attract people from all over Indiana and the United States to Martinsville for the healing properties of the mineral water that flowed in abundance under the town.
Now the water that was once so sought after has been contaminated with the dry cleaning chemical tetrachloroethylene, often referred to as PCE. As a result, Martinsville was listed as an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site in 2013.
The EPA will release the results of related air and soil tests Monday at Martinsville’s Board of Works and Common Council meetings, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall. Also Monday, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will release its report, “Analysis of Contaminants in Drinking Water and Indoor Air” for the Superfund site.
The Pike and Mulberry Streets PCE site is a 38-acre plume located in downtown Martinsville, encompassing the town square, courthouse and municipal well water system. The suspected source of contamination is Master Wear, a former dry cleaner operating at 28 N. Main St. The plume has affected the water of about 15,000 people.
Since 2005 Martinsville has operated an activated carbon filtration system to remove the PCE, but the levels of PCE continue to rise.
Problems initially began in November of 2002 when one of the municipal wells exceeded the maximum contaminate level of PCE. The Indiana Department of Environmental Management ordered the well closed and the drinking water supply diverted to the other wells in the well field while it conducted an investigation of the contamination.
However, the majority of citizens in Martinsville do not know their drinking water wells are in the middle of a Superfund site according to Tom Wallace, resident, small business owner and chairman of the Morgan County Democratic Committee. Wallace is also a retired environmental engineer.
“I try to talk to people about this and they have no clue what you’re talking about,” Wallace said. “I don’t think they comprehend or understand what it is or how big it is. ‘I can’t see anything or smell anything .’ It’s an educational element.”
Wallace currently runs a Facebook page on the Martinsville Superfund site and is organizing an environmental forum to be held in late March to try to raise community awareness and to try to gather data on cancer rates in Martinsville. Wallace is also the Democratic candidate for the 2020 mayoral race.
“When I go to meetings, I’ll ask, ‘Do you know someone who has cancer? How many family members have died of cancer? When you go to church, someone’s sick, and what is it?’” Wallace said. “You’d be amazed how many people say yes. Everyone knows about that but they don’t know about anything else.”
Wallace believes there is a correlation between the contaminated well water and the cancer rate in Martinsville.
“In the environmental forum I’m organizing we will try to gather all of the little pieces together. The EPA studies one thing, Hoosier Action another, but no one is putting it all together. There has got to be a correlation between the cancer rates and the water. We have to find the people who are going to take responsibility for realizing, yes there is.”
According to a study released in January by IUPUI and the Regenstrief Institute Indiana ranks 11th nationally in cancer deaths. Thirty-four counties in Indiana, including Morgan County, have cancer rate deaths higher than the state average. According to the National Cancer Institute, Morgan County has the second highest rate of cancer in Indiana.
There is also an economic cost to the town until the Superfund site has been cleaned up.
“People are not going to come into town when they see this,” Wallace said. “They tried to get an anchor tenant to come to downtown Martinsville, and the attorneys for the company started doing due diligence. One of the very first things they will see is this is a Superfund site. You know, one of the first things any company anymore is looking at, what are the health aspects, is this a healthy environment for employees? They will never come to Martinsville. There will never be any development simply because of that until this Superfund site settled and that designation is gone.”
The town has installed carbon filters on the wells, but these cost around $150,000 and need to be replaced at least every 18 months. This cost has been passed on to the residents of Morgan County with water rates being raised by 40 percent in 2012.
In 2015 as part of the remedial investigation, the EPA began taking air samples in several businesses and homes near and on the superfund site to test for any possible air quality issues. Samples from monitoring wells and soil near those wells as well as around the site were taken for testing as well.
The results of these tests will be released on Monday.
“It’s something that everyone needs to be aware of. I mean it’s your town, it’s your kids and it’s your community. It’s also your tax dollars,” said Wallace.
IDEM and the EPA did not respond to repeated requests for comments for this article.