Cost of cleanup at Noblesville museum site could reach six figures, city says

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Cleanup of the Indiana Transportation Museum site in Noblesville could cost more than $100,000, according to city estimates, but the state's environmental agency has determined that the recently discovered contamination does not pose any immediate threat.

The City of Noblesville sent a letter to museum officials on Tuesday, accusing the organization of violating the terms of its lease and improperly storing chemicals on museum grounds within the city’s Forest Park. The city requested the museum take action to ensure containment of hazardous materials and to clean up the contamination.

In the letter obtained by IBJ, the city demanded the organization “cease all expenditures other than those in the normal course of business” in order to be able to pay for the cleanup.

“Because our experts have determined that the cost of the containment and remediation could well exceed $100,000, the city is fearful that your liability to clean-up these spills could well exceed the value of all of your combined assets,” the letter stated.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management said it believes all of the contaminants are oil-based and do not pose an immediate threat. The city had contacted IDEM to request an inspection of the site after receiving notice of possible issues in May, and an official visited the property Wednesday to conduct a visual assessment.

“A cleanup will be required, but an emergency response action is not necessary,” IDEM spokesman Barry Sneed said in an email to IBJ.

Sneed said IDEM will send a letter to the city outlining its liabilities and actions that need to be taken.

“IDEM will continue to work with the city of Noblesville and ITM to make sure that an appropriate cleanup is completed and that the site is brought into compliance with state statutes and rules,” Sneed said in the email. “The next steps will be for the city and ITM to do a site inventory and assessment followed by a cleanup plan which must be submitted to IDEM.”

John McNichols, the museum’s board chair, said museum officials expected that response from IDEM because the materials are not hazardous and are not unusual for an industrial setting. But McNichols acknowledged the group has "some housecleaning to do."

"It's nothing major and we'll have no problem working with them to make that happen," McNichols said.

The city discovered the issues at the museum’s property in May after being contacted by a WRTV-TV Channel 6 reporter, who had visited the site for a story about the adjacent Nickel Plate Railroad. The reporter noted drums of grease, diesel fuel and other products and chemicals that appeared improperly stored, damaged and not sealed properly, according to the letter the city sent the museum. 

A museum official said Wednesday that the group was surprised by the city’s public disclosure of the issue via press release on Wednesday morning. He claimed ITM hadn't received the letter, which the city said was sent via certified mail. ITM received it on Thursday, the group said later.

The museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of the state’s rail industry and until recently operated train rides on the Nickel Plate Railroad, leases the property from the city for $10 per year. The site includes a maintenance facility for vintage locomotives, which includes storage of fuels and lube oils.

The lease requires the museum to keep the property “in a clean, sightly, and healthful condition, and in good repair at its own expense.”

Noblesville MS4 Program Manager Tim Stottlemyer inspected the property May 17 in response to the tip from the reporter and surveyed outside maintenance and storage areas maintained by the museum, according to a report he filed.

Photographs attached to the report show damaged, rusted and unlabeled storage containers throughout the property. Batteries also appeared to be improperly stored, and some of the containers seemed to be leaking, according to Stottlemyer’s evaluation.

“I have concluded that this facility has serious issues with outside storage of fluids and other items that pose a significant risk to ground and surface waters,” Stottlemyer wrote. “If this were a city operated facility inspected by IDEM, we would be facing serious violations and enforcement action.”

Stottlemyer recommended that a more comprehensive evaluation be conducted to determine the necessary corrective actions.

The city has also hired Indianapolis-based engineering and environmental firm Keramida to assist with monitoring the situation.

McNichols argues that the city’s actions are motivated by ITM’s opposition to plans that would replace a portion of the Nickel Plate line with a pedestrian trail through Noblesville and 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 Wednesday. A city spokesman refuted the allegation, saying Noblesville simply was responding to a report of environmental concerns.

Noblesville and museum officials have been debating the fate of the Nickel Plate for months.

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 Hoosier Heritage Port Authority, the quasi-government agency that oversees the railroad, terminated its policy-of-use agreement with the museum in March 2016 amid concerns about the not-for-profit’s financials and maintenance of the tracks. That meant the museum had to discontinue its popular State Fair Train rides last year, and the attraction could be permanently discontinued.

The port authority is keeping all options open for the future of the railroad and is searching for a new operator of the track. Responses to a request for proposals are due June 13, and the board does not expect to make a decision in time for the Aug. 4 opening of the Indiana State Fair.

The museum says it will submit a proposal, but officials are skeptical that it stands a fair chance.

“We’ve been told we’re welcome to submit a proposal, but by the same people we’ve been told we don’t have a chance at winning,” McNichols recently told IBJ.

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