Martinsville Group Encouraging Residents to Have Homes Tested for Toxic Gases

Downtown homes and businesses may be contaminated by vapor from Superfund site.
May 17, 2021

With a clean-up plan on the table, a group of Martinsville residents is seeking buy-in from fellow citizens to allow federal officials to test the air in homes and businesses that might be contaminated with toxic chemicals from a now-closed dry-cleaning business.

The EPA released a Record of Decision in March for the remediation of the Pike and Mulberry Superfund site in downtown Martinsville. It includes a specific process for cleaning up the contamination, as well as a recommendation for a Community Action Group, a 15- to 25-member group made up of residents, business owners and those affected by the site.

The community-led group provides a voice and opportunity to participate in the Superfund process by exchanging information among the community, the EPA and other state and federal agencies.

Residents are more likely to let the EPA into their homes to test for contamination if a CAG member is there to reassure them, said CAG member Marianne Schell.

“When the EPA comes out, of course, people automatically think, ‘It's the government, we shouldn't allow them in our house.’ So it's not easy,” she said.

The 38-acre plume, which extends to the city’s municipal well field and drinking water plant, is contaminated with tetrachloroethylene, or PCE, and trichloroethylene, or TCE.

Both chemicals are associated with health problems such as cancer, liver damage and neurological disorders.

An EPA map showing levels of groundwater PCE contamination within in the Superfund site plume.

PCE and TCE can exist not just in the water, but also in indoor air above contaminated sites, entering buildings through foundation cracks or openings for utility lines via a process called vapor intrusion.

Previously, when the EPA tried to get access to test the 230 structures identified on the Martinsville plume site, only 50 home or business owners allowed their properties to be tested.

Kevin Fusinksi, an EPA toxicologist, said that access is crucial.

“We cannot protect you unless we know you’re exposed,” he said. “We don’t know you’re exposed unless you let us into your home to do an investigation because the chemicals are odorless, colorless and tasteless.”

Kristin Safakas, community involvement coordinator for the EPA, said a Community Action Group that will help convince residents to allow testing is a good fit for Martinsville.

An EPA map showing PCE soil vapor within in the Superfund site plume.

“It’s becoming increasingly apparent that more and more people are developing an interest, a passion for environmental awareness and environmental education,” Safakas said during a recent information session.

“People who have been affected by the Superfund site have a right to know what is being done,” she added.

The Martinsville CAG currently has 10 members, but it is seeking more, as well as general participation from the public in its monthly meetings.

Schell and her husband bought a home in the plume area without knowing the area was contaminated. For the past two years, she has been volunteering with Hoosier Action to increase community awareness of the problem.

Illustration of vapor intrusion by the EPA.

“We are members of this community, and I don’t have an issue standing up and asking anybody a question,” she said. “This is our community, and we need to get it and keep it safe.”

A plan for remediation

While the remediation of the plume won’t begin until at the earliest in 2023, vapor intrusion testing and mitigation will be starting as soon as January or February of 2022.

“You want to do it in winter because that’s the time worst case scenario for vapor intrusion sampling,” said Erik Hardin, remedial project manager for the EPA. “You can imagine the house is completely buttoned up, so you’re not getting dilution from an open window and things like that.”

He said he will be sending out access agreements to property owners in the plume area this summer. The written permission is especially important for rental properties, he said.

“We need permission from the owner themselves, and then we will work with the tenant to arrange timing and things like that. We can’t do sampling with the permission of the tenant only,” Hardin said.

Illustration of In-Situ Chemical Reduction by Federal Remediation Technologies.

Both testing and mitigation are free to the homeowner. If contamination is found, the EPA will install a sub-slab depressurization system, more commonly known as a radon fan. A hole will be drilled in the slab of a home and a pipe installed and run to a fan that is vented above the roofline of the home, allowing the compounds to breakdown and dissipate in the sunlight.

The EPA is looking for a contractor to design a remediation plan, which will be implemented by a separate contractor.

The Record of Decision details a remediation plan that would continue carbon filtration treatment of drinking water, reduce groundwater PCE concentrations to below drinking water standards, prevent PCE and TCE vapor intrusion, and clean up the soil vapor and groundwater so it no longer poses a vapor intrusion risk.

The EPA chose In-Situ Chemical Reduction as the method to clean the plume area. ISCR uses chemicals called reducing agents to change contaminants into less toxic or less mobile forms. At selected points along the plume area, chemicals will be injected directly into the ground and natural attenuation monitoring will be conducted every five years until the site completes remediation.

Another option was In-Situ Chemical Oxidation, which is the method of cleanup currently being used in Martinsville on a different contaminated site, the O’Neal plume. Chemical oxidation uses chemicals called “oxidants” to help change harmful contaminants into less toxic ones.

Illustration of In-Situ Chemical Oxidation by Federal Remediation Technologies.

“ISCR creates conditions underground that lead to the breakdown of the contamination. It’s not quite as immediate as ISCO but it has a more lasting effect,” said Hardin.

Based on computer modeling, it is estimated that it will take nine to 17 years for complete cleanup using the ISCR method.

Disagreement with the plan

Some Martinsville residents disagree with the selection of ISCR and would prefer for the EPA to use the ISCO method.

“The proposed plan is almost a ‘pilot’ plan, not a full decision,” said retired environmental engineer Tom Wallace, a resident who has been heavily involved in cleanup discussions.

Wallace said he and others are encouraging implementation of the oxidation method with chemicals such as Plumestop, which is already being used to remediate the O’Neal plume. It also has been used to treat PCE/TCE contamination in nearby Franklin, Indiana.

In its Record of Decision, the EPA said it evaluated and eliminated the ISCO option because of its “limited history of use and the limited data demonstrating its effectiveness.” After comments from residents, it conducted an additional evaluation but came to the same conclusion because of the large scale of the plume.

Wallace and others also would like to see the ROD address health issues affecting the community. Several Martinsville residents have been diagnosed with rare forms of cancer that they believe could be associated with the Superfund sites.

Wallace said the EPA’s original classification of the Pike and Mulberry site is based on groundwater contamination, yet the current health risk comes from vapor intrusion.

“The actual potential health risks from vapor intrusion are not fully addressed within the newly released ROD, nor are all the areas identified as potential hot spots of vapor intrusion within the initial EPA assessment included within the designated Superfund Site,” Wallace said. “And these areas are not included in any of the other designated plumes in Martinsville, which constructively means that those individuals living within these affected zones have no recourse for remediation.”

Wallace said residents are trying to address these omissions through a study being conducted by researchers at Purdue University.

To find out more information on joining the Pike and Mulberry St. CAG, email Kristin Safakas EPA community involvement coordinator at

Martinsville Group Encouraging Residents to Have Homes Tested for Toxic Gases