The Chestertown Council voted 4-0 Monday to seek University of Maryland Shore Regional Health’s permission to conduct a site investigation of the hospital oil spill where an estimated 80,000 gallons of oil remains in the subsurface and poses a risk to the town’s drinking water plant, which sits just 1,100 feet downslope from the hospital.

“What has never been done is a comprehensive site investigation,” said Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes, who recommended the town undertake a site investigation on its own at Monday’s council meeting. 

A site investigation was recommended in 2014 by the former MDE geologist who oversaw the cleanup process at the hospital for 12 years before his retirement, Sipes told the council. 

“The former geologist for the site…said this is something that needs to be done,” Sipes said.

MDE has required site investigations for much smaller sites but has never required it for the hospital site, which is said to be the largest heating oil spill in the state’s history not related to a tank farm.

Sipes said the hospital had been asked to conduct a site investigation on several occasions since 2014 in public settings, but to no avail.

The former MDE geologist, Fred Keer, also testified in 2016 before the House Environmental Committee in Annapolis that he was “alarmed” at the methods being used by Shore Health — and approved by Maryland Department of the Environment — to clean up the site. See video here.

Monday’s vote of the council gave Sipes the go ahead to contract an environmental firm to devise a plan, and a cost estimate, to review water samples and study the site to pinpoint where 50-foot borings could be drilled to identify any remaining oil. He said the company would also review the quarterly sampling reports submitted by the hospital to determine “any gaps in information.”

Once this is complete a full-on site investigation would go out to competitive bid. Sipes said the initial cost to devise the plan would run roughly $4,000 to $8,000.

A site investigation, or site characterization, is often required by Maryland Department of the Environment for oil spills, and the town wants a site investigation before the agency grants Shore Health permission to shut down the containment system, which has kept the oil from escaping in the direction of the water plant for many years.

Shore Health made a request to MDE on March 18 to turn off the containment system stating, “Our expectation is that the dissolved hydrocarbons in groundwater will continue to biodegrade before they reach the sentinel wells.”

The sentinel wells are located on Campus Avenue and exist as the Maginot Line that would trigger a response from Shore Health should oil ever reach them.

Shore Health’s request was met with a response from the town to MDE on May 10 — citing a litany of concerns and questions — with a request for a site investigation before granting Shore Health permission to turn the containment system off.

The May 10 letter also reminded MDE that new wells installed in 1999 recovered an additional 10,000 gallons of heating oil — after the hospital claimed that the containment system was no longer reclaiming any significant amount of oil from the spill. For this reason the town called for a thorough site investigation in its May 10 letter.

Sipes said he would like to drill borings where monitoring and recovery wells do not currently exist to get an idea of the “exact range of the oil plume…outside the existing monitoring well area” to see whether there are any pockets of oil in the subsurface.

He said the town would be in control of the location of the borings and the testing of the water samples. He said he would like to have borings drilled on the Washington Avenue side of the hospital where there are currently no monitoring wells — and also behind the hospital.

“The scope would be determined by [the town],” Sipes said. “We can test for anything we want.” 

Sipes said the tests could be for heating oil and/or its byproducts like acetone, naphthalene and benzene. 

Mayor David Foster said the hospital may have successfully cleaned up around the wells but that oil could exist just 50 feet from the wells. 

“We’re trying to seek what’s happened…where [oil] could later begin flowing,” Foster said. 

The town would seek help with the costs from Shore Health but didn’t rule out going it alone if Shore Health did not want to participate in cost sharing.

The town will seek Shore Health’s cooperation.

“We would definitely need the hospital’s permission because a large amount of the work would be on their property,” Sipes said.

“It will be interesting if they resist,” Foster responded. “You’d wonder why they’d resist.”

Foster said he wanted the town’s pro bono law firm, Bergeson & Campbell, to be kept in the loop on communications with Shore Health. The firm has advised the town on its options with the oil spill since last fall.

Shore Health’s March 18 request to shut down the containment system comes seven months after MDE denied  Shore Health’s request to turn off the containment system following an unauthorized shutdown in April of 2020.

MDE fined Shore Health $10,000 for failing to disclose the unauthorized shutdown.

The unauthorized shutdown opened old wounds between the town and Shore Health over transparency issues.

Sipes said a site investigation would prove Shore Health’s claims that the spill no longer poses a threat to the town’s water supply and will never reach the sentinel wells on Campus Avenue.