The City of Noblesville has accused the Indiana Transportation Museum of violating the terms of its lease after discovering leakage of chemicals on the grounds of the museum in the city’s Forest Park.
City officials said in a media release Wednesday morning that they had requested the museum take action to ensure containment of hazardous materials and to clean up the contamination. They also said that they voluntarily notified the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to request a more comprehensive inspection.
John McNichols, the museum's board chair, said in a statement later in the day that the organization was taken by surprise by the public announcement. ITM officials had not been contacted in advance by the city about any environmental issues at the site, he said.
"We were not aware of their concerns until the city's news release, and we have not been contacted by city officials," McNichols said.
The museum is dedicated to preserving the history of the state’s rail industry and until recently had operated train rides on the adjacent Nickel Plate Railroad lines. The site includes a maintenance facility for vintage locomotives, which includes storage of fuels and lube oils.
McNichols suggested the city move was motivated by the ITM's opposition to plans for replacing a portion of the Nickel Plate line with a pedestrian trail to Fishers.
"This latest release is simply another trumped up charge to reduce the significant public outcry against the cities of Fishers and Noblesville to rip up the rails," McNichols said.
The city does not consider the leakage to be an imminent public health threat, and the museum has been allowed to continue normal business operations.
The city leases the museum grounds to the organization and recently performed an inspection of the outside maintenance and storage area leased to ITM, according to the city's release.
This initial inspection found serious issues with outside storage of fluids and other items that could pose a risk, including container leakage and ground stains of oils, grease, diesel fuel and other products and chemicals used for the maintenance of ITM’s former railroad operations, the city's release said.
“We look forward to working closely with IDEM so they can complete a much more thorough inspection of the site and help evaluate ITM’s plans for remediation,” said Noblesville Mayor John Ditslear in the release. “We will do everything we can to ensure local taxpayers do not have to pay for the clean-up effort caused by the ITM due to its careless practices.”
While not aware of any violations on the property, ITM officials pledged full cooperation on the issue and planned to address any ground contamination issues with authorities, McNichols said.
Noblesville and museum officials are in the midst of a fierce debate over the fate of the Nickel Plate Railroad.
Officials in Fishers and Noblesville, which split ownership rights along with Hamilton County for the 37-mile railroad, are seeking to convert sections that run through their communities into a 14-foot-wide pedestrian trail.
But the museum—the former operator of the track—is fighting to keep the railroad. Museum officials say that if a trail must be built, it should run adjacent to the tracks, not replace them.
The fate of the Nickel Plate took a sharp turn in March 2016 when the Hoosier Heritage Port Authority terminated its policy-of-use agreement with the Indiana Transportation Museum amid concerns about the not-for-profit’s financials and maintenance of the tracks.
The museum discontinued its popular State Fair Train rides last year, and is not expected to offer them this year.
Noblesville Communications Manager Robert Herrington dismissed McNichols assertion that the city was pursuing the contamination issue to affect public perception of the Nickel Plate debate.
"The issue is about ensuring a verified contamination and remediation process. We want to work with IDEM and the ITM to facilitate that the site returns to a clean, sightly and healthful condition," he said.
The city's notification to ITM was mailed via certified letter, he said.