Councilman Foster Calls For Public Awareness and Transparency on Oil Spill Cleanup

I want to thank Chris Cerino for his good summary of the Oil Spill Remediation situation.  I sincerely appreciate our Mayor’s serious concern regarding this issue and his extensive efforts to meet the challenges it presents.

The biggest challenge, of course, is that despite the fact that this is our town and our water supply, MDE and Shore Health have treated us as mere bystanders in this process.  In short, we have no legal authority over the remediation.  What makes this situation even worse is that Shore Health has failed the “Transparency Test” at every opportunity and often seeks to whitewash or minimize the severity of this problem.

Ward 1 Councilman David Foster. Kent Pilot File Photo

For those council members who are not familiar with the history of this problem and the Hospital’s repeated Transparency Violations, I will provide a summary later in this email but first I want to emphasize that just because we lack legal authority does NOT mean that we are out of the game.

I joined EPA in its infancy, in 1974, and subsequently worked in the U.S. and in over a dozen countries on environmental issues.  Based on this experience I firmly believe that there are usually at least three keys to power on environmental issues:

  1. Legal Authority
  2. Financial Resources
  3. Public Awareness

The fact that we are severely limited on the first two means that it is all the more important that we concentrate on the third.  Although not all of them like to admit it, every regulatory agency that I have seen pays attention to public concerns.  They make it their business to know which communities are informed, aware, and paying attention; and which ones are not.  The “squeaking wheel” does get the grease and those that fail to pay attention or fail to challenge misinformation, often get what they deserve.

With this in mind, I believe that we need to continue working politely and cooperatively with MDE and Shore Regional Health to ensure a safe and cost-effective solution to the Oil Spill Remediation problem but at the same time be prepared to challenge falsehoods and ask tough questions at every opportunity.  I also believe that we need to keep our community informed along the way and make sure that MDE knows that we care, we are informed, and that we are watching them.  {For those of you not familiar with the “Hawthorne Effect,” I suggest that you ask Mr. Google.}

Chris has offered to send any questions we may have to Christopher Ralston, Chief of MDE’s Oil Control Program, Remediation Division. Ralston has been helpful to us in the past and I hope that we can build and maintain an ongoing dialog with him.  I hope, therefore, that all of us can spend some time thinking about questions that will help us understand and explain to our constituents precisely what the proposed 6 month study is proposed to accomplish, what parameters and tests will be used to determine success or failure, and what impact this study may have on future conduct of the oil spill remediation programs in Chestertown.

In my professional opinion, I believe that asking such questions not only will help provide us with useful information but will also further encourage Mr. Ralston and his staff to take us more seriously.

History of LUST AND TRANSPARENCY in Chestertown

Unfortunately, there has been plenty of LUST and very little transparency.  The “LUST” in this title, of course, refers to Leaking Underground Storage Tanks and to the program initiated at EPA to address this problem and protect our water resources.

  • The LUST program started in the mid 1980s, coincidentally, just a few years before the heating oil tank under our Hospital began leaking.  https://www.epa.gov/ust/leaking-underground-storage-tank-lust-trust-fund
  • When the leak was first discovered, the Hospital Administrator casually informed the Hospital Board but directed the secretary not to put it in the minutes and failed to even tell the Mayor of Chestertown.  Mayor Horsey only learned about it because his wife was on the Board.
  • During the first few years of the MDE mandated pump and treat program, the spilt oil was almost like a private oil well.  The Hospital’s consultants, pumped the oil, removed the water and then burned the oil in their boilers.
  • With each successive year, the remaining oil became more difficult to remove but their own consultants calculated that they removed a total of 83,000 gallons.
  • As EPA predicted, no more than 50% of that oil spill could be removed using conventional removal technology and less than that if the oil was particularly heavy.   {NOTE: The oil used by our Hospital was some of the heaviest, most viscous oil around.  Therefore, if no more than 50% was removed and 83,000 gallons were removed then at least 166,000 gallons resulted from that original leak.}
  • Throughout this period the Hospital downplayed the significance of this major oil spill.  Ken Kozell and/or his consultants told our Mayor and Council that “they were under no obligation to inform the public” and a lawyer on the hospital board used even more colorful language saying: “The Public does not need to know shit!.”
  • The Hospital administrator and his consultants were so successful at whitewashing and minimizing the true significance of this enormous oil spill that when a far smaller spill occurred near the Patuxent River in 2000, it was promptly declared: The Largest Oil Spill Ever to Take Place in Maryland.”  Obviously, neither our Hospital management nor MDE wanted to draw attention to the embarrassing fact that it was our own health institution that had created the largest oil spill in our state.
  • Faced with increasing pumping and monitoring costs and declining amounts of oil removed, the Hospital sought to stop pumping and apparently again “forgot to tell the Mayor” that they were doing so. {NOTE: EPA’s LUST regulations are explicit about the requirement for public awareness as is MDE’s delegated program.}
  • ·Alarmed by this chronic lack of transparency, some concerned citizens and our Mayor arranged for a Town Meeting and invited Shore Regional Health and the Chris Ralston from MDE.  In the course of that meeting, Mr. Ralston was asked if he had ever told Shore Regional Health that he did not need to inform the public and he insisted that he had never done so.  Only then did Ken Kozell apologize “for giving the impression that he did not feel it was important to keep the mayor and the people in this town informed.”
  • When Ken Kozell and his consultants offered to attend our recent Mayor and Council Meeting “in the spirit of transparency” we obviously welcomed them but they were not transparent at all when:

o   The oil spill was referred to as “a few thousand gallons,”
o   They claimed to have removed “99% of the oil,” or
o   When they spoke of oil “being spilled from trucks.”

Summing Up and Lessons Learned

1)     While we know that 83,000 gallons of oil were recovered and that according to EPA estimates, at least twice that amount was spilled, we may never know precisely what happened to the other 83,000 gallons that is currently “Missing in Action.”  There are at least three theoretical explanations for that missing oil:

  1. a)Some unknown quantity of oil may have been consumed by natural bacteria,
  2. b)Some may have passed under or around our wells on toward the Chester River, and
  3. c)Some may be hidden in underground crevices and/or held back by the “hydraulic curtain” created through the pump and treatment system and potentially still subject to seismic action or storm surge.

2)     Neither the past nor current owners have been willingly Transparent.

  1. a) If we want Transparency we will need to be prepared to challenge Shore Regional Health and its consultants whenever it seeks to minimize or whitewash this situation.
  2. b) Whenever possible we should seek to include MDE in these discussions because I believe that Kozell and his consultants will be less likely to distort the facts when MDE is in the “room where it happened.”

3)     Despite the fact that the spill on the Patuxent River has been labeled the “Largest Oil Spill in Maryland,” the real differences are:

  1. a)The Patuxent Oil Spill was out in the open and easily photographed while the spill in Chestertown was underground, out of site and “only” threatened our drinking wells.
  2. b)Based on the estimates following EPA guidelines, the spill here in Chestertown was at least 18% greater (166,000-140,000/140,000) than the one along the Patuxent, the so called “Largest Oil Spill in Maryland,” yet those responsible for cleanup along the Patuxent were apparently required to spend far more.
  3. c)Past and present owners of our Hospital have tried desperately to downplay and minimize the significance of a massive oil spill.

4)     Faced with this history it is critical that we stay in close communications with MDE and be prepared to seek far more detailed information regarding the forthcoming study involving the suspension of the pump and treat system including at least:

a)What is the real purpose of this study?

b)What parameters will be used to evaluate it, i.e. what are the standards for success and failure?

c)Are those tests consistent with EPA standards?

d)What happens if the tests fail?

e)What precautions will be undertaken to protect the wells during the test?

f)How and when will the people of Chestertown be kept informed during this test?

David Foster
Ward 1 Councilman

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