Martinsville is the home of the Artesians.
The high school’s mascot is an old bucket-drawn well. On one corner of the town square, a neon sign declares Martinsville “City of Mineral Water.”
But amid the proud heritage of wells that once drew visitors from around the region to relax at mineral spas, Martinsville is also fighting a water contamination problem, and now the federal government may step in to help the city.
How A Dry Cleaner Contaminated Martinsville’s Water
A local dry cleaner that closed in the early 1990s left a toxic legacy with the community of roughly 12,000 residents.
Tetrachloroethylene or PERC, a chemical used to clean fabrics, is seeping from the downtown Masterwear building into the groundwater that supplies the city with drinking water. The Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry says the chemical likely causes liver and kidney damage, as well as cancer.
“We’re standing at the Martinsville water treatment plant and well field,” says Ross Holloway, Martinsville city engineer for 16 years, as he points out the city’s water supply facilities. “The contamination started downtown, which is approximately half a mile as the crow flies to the southeast from here. And it’s gradually heading toward the river, right through here.”
The City’s Filter Solution
To protect drinking water, the city installed carbon filters in 2005 to remove the chemical at its water treatment plant.
Since then, PERC concentrations in the filtered drinking water have ranged from undetecteble to less than one part per billion. That’s well below what the Environmental Protection Agency defines as the maximum allowable concentration, which is 5 parts per billion.
However, these carbon filters are pricey, at about $120,000 per unit, much more than the city can cover through water bills. Especially when the filters need replacement about every 18 months.
To help with the costs, Indiana petitioned to place the Martinsville well site on the Superfund National Priorities list – sites in desperate need of chemical clean-up. The designation would bring federal funding to help monitor and remediate the well site.
City engineer Ross Holloway says the PERC levels continue to increase in one of the three city wells, creating an even greater burden on the water treatment plant.
“The contamination level when we first built the plants was about 10 to 12 parts per billion (ppb). Our latest tests indicate 47 ppb,” Holloway says. “So you can see over the last approximately ten to fifteen years, the contamination level has quadrupled.”
One possible reason the PERC levels are still increasing is due to the slow movement of the groundwater that carries the chemical from the original dry cleaner site to the wells. The EPA also thinks there may be other possible sources of contamination.
The PERC contamination problem has been on Tina Chafey’s radar for a long time. For fourteen years, Chafey owned a tearoom and antique shop one block from the town square. She is a regular at the biweekly Martinsville city council meetings.
“My husband and I attend the city council meeting and have for the last seventeen years. The last five years, we’ve missed one,” she says. “I let my grandkids drink that water, and I would not let them drink it unless it was one hundred percent safe.”
Martinsville is not alone in its PERC woes. Cities such as Denver, Colorado and Brunswick, Maine can be found on the Superfund National Priorities List for PERC groundwater contamination, and these communities have undergone a clean-up process outlined by the EPA.
First, the EPA invites the public to submit information during a public comment period. Martinsville’s will end November 19. Then, the EPA will decide whether the city will receive federal funding for the contaminated well site.
If the site is not approved, Martinsville is working on other ways to deal with the PERC issue. City leaders proposed an increase in water rates last month to help cover the water treatment plant’s operation costs. And eventually, city leaders hope to use new wells for the city drinking water.