Indiana’s Contamination Problems Go Beyond Imported East Palestine Derailment Soil

March 6, 2023

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has sent several truckloads of contaminated soil from a toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio to a permitted hazardous waste facility in Roachdale, Indiana.

The Norfolk Southern train derailed Feb. 3, eventually releasing 1.1 million pounds of vinyl chloride and other chemicals. Vinyl chloride is a volatile organic compound linked to an increased risk of developing liver, brain and lung cancers, as well as lymphoma and leukemia. The EPA is also testing for the presence of dioxins, carcinogenic chemicals which can be created when vinyl chloride is burned.

The move has drawn the ire of Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb, who put out a sternly worded press release soon after the decision was made public, saying he was not informed of the decision to ship the soil contaminated with vinyl chloride across the state. He asked to speak to EPA administrator Michael Regan about the precautions taken when transporting the materials.

Holcomb has also ordered the soil shipments to be tested for dioxins.

The contaminated soil shipment is drawing the attention to the 53-acre Roachdale landfill, but many Hoosiers don’t know that hundreds of sites contaminated with similar volatile organic compounds as well as heavy metals and other toxic substances exist throughout the state.


Dozens of sites exist around the state where coal ash, the toxic byproduct of burning coal for energy, is stored in unlined ponds near rivers and streams, threatening human health.

Hoosier Environmental Council map of coal ash sites in Indiana.

Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, mercury and many other toxic substances that can cause damage to every organ in the human body. Coal ash can cause cancer, neurological damage, heart disease, lung diseases and kidney disease and can even harm the reproductive system.

Unlined coal ash ponds have leaked in the past, sending toxic pollutants to surrounding areas and making their groundwater unsafe.

Many coal ash ponds have been deemed to pose a significant hazard level to their surrounding community due to the potential catastrophic release of coal ash in the event of flooding.

The AES Indiana Eagle Valley Generating Station in Martinsville has experienced at least two major failures at its coal ash pond that sent tens of millions of coal ash-tainted water into the White River.

On Feb. 14, 2007, a levee failure release 30 million gallons of coal ash sluice, and a failure less than a year later on Jan. 30, 2008 released another 30 million gallons of ash sluice into the river. The plant also had smaller releases that same year.

Hoosiers in northwest Indiana are attempting to prevent a large release of coal ash from a pond abutting Lake Michigan.

Northern Indiana Public Service Co. is closing down several coal ash ponds at its Michigan City Generating Station, but is leaving in place a large stretch of land made from a mixture of coal ash, sand and soil that surrounds the ponds and stretches to the lake’s edge.

The only thing preventing the “made land” mixture from mixing with the lake’s waters is a decades-old corroded steel sheet seawall.

Coal ash regulations in the state could become more lenient. Indiana lawmakers voted in 2021 to establish a state coal ash permitting program that would be overseen by the understaffed Indiana Department of Environmental Management. The program will need to be approved by the EPA before it handles coal ash permits.

The Indiana House of Representatives recently voted to curtail IDEM’s ability to set any regulations for the proposed program that would be more stringent than federal regulations. The bill is now being considered by the Indiana Senate.


Volatile organic compounds, like the vinyl chloride released by the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, are a major pollution problem for Indiana.

Of the 53 Superfund sites in Indiana on the National Priorities List, the list of the most polluted sites in the country, 32 are contaminated with volatile organic compounds like TCE, PCE and vinyl chloride. Some are contaminated with all three or more.

At some of the sites, VOCs are threatening the water supplies of entire cities. The Broadway Street Corridor Groundwater Contamination site in Anderson, the Main Street Well Field site and North Shore Drive site in Elkhart, the North 5th Street Groundwater Contamination site in Goshen, the Kokomo Contaminated Groundwater Plume in Kokomo, the Cliff Drive Groundwater Contamination site in Logansport, the Pike and Mulberry Streets PCE Plume in Martinsville, the Elm Street Groundwater Contamination site in Terre Haute and the Garden City Groundwater Plume in Garden City all feature VOCs in the untreated water serving those communities.

Without government-mandated filtering systems, thousands of Hoosiers could potentially be exposed to the carcinogenic chemicals.

In Martinsville, EPA and IDEM are searching for the source of PCE contamination that has increased at one of the city’s municipal drinking water wells despite the city using an activated carbon filtration system since 2005 to remove the PCE from its water.

PCE, also known as tetrachloroethene or perchloroethylene, can cause bladder cancer and is linked to an increased risk of non-Hodgkin lymphoma and end-stage renal disease.

Some Martinsville residents have attributed their rare cancerous tumors to contamination from the city’s drinking water. About a dozen properties received vapor intrusion mitigation systems to prevent the chemical from seeping into the homes as a gas.

Cleanup for the Superfund site was estimated to cost $11.9 million. The Biden administration selected the site and 48 others to receive funding for the cleanup from the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

VOC contamination is also affecting Superfund sites not on the National Priorities List, like a plume just half a mile from the Indiana Statehouse.

The Riverside Groundwater Contamination Site in Indianapolis, also known as the Site 0153 Ground Water Contamination Site by IDEM, comprises two multi-well wellfields operated by Citizens Energy Group.

The company in 2013 detected elevated levels of vinyl chloride and cis-1,2 dichloroethene in the well field, which provides water to more than 10,000 people in Indianapolis. IDEM initially asked the EPA to include the site on its National Priorities List, but eventually rescinded the request.

Over time, IDEM determined that the VOCs did not come from one source, but from many sources over the course of decades. IDEM and Citizens Energy agreed to install aeration equipment at the well to eliminate the VOC threat.

The shutdown of manufacturing plants in the state is also revealing other sources of VOC contamination.

In Peru, Indiana, the closure of the Schneider Electric Square D plant revealed the site was polluted with TCE, cis-1, 2-dichloroethene and vinyl chloride. At least one of the chemicals found at the site has been found in residences beyond the plant’s fence line.

IDEM accepted Schneider Electric USA into the Voluntary Remediation Program to clean up the site. Participation in the program requires the company to submit a cleanup plan to IDEM for approval. If the plan is approved, the company must abide by the parameters of the plan.

Once cleanup is completed, the company is eligible to receive a Certificate of Completion from IDEM, and the Indiana Governor’s Office can issue a Covenant Not to Sue, which protects the company from liability or claims from the state based on the release or threatened release of the contaminants listed in the approved VRP work plan.

In the past, companies have used participation in the VRP to delay action at the site for more than a decade, on average.

Indiana’s Contamination Problems Go Beyond Imported East Palestine Derailment Soil