Chestertown Mayor David Foster

This was a very good first week on the job for Chestertown Mayor David Foster — and a good week for Chestertown.

In his first major leadership success, Foster received unanimous support from council members to seek University of Maryland Shore Regional Health’s permission, and cooperation, to conduct a comprehensive site study of a heating oil spill at the hospital that occurred in the late 1980s.

The week only got better when the Kent County Commissioners voted unanimously the next day to pay $10,000 towards the cost of a consultant to write a preliminary proposal for the comprehensive study. The commissioners also left the door open for the town to request more money if needed.

The spill was estimated at 160,000 gallons that leaked into the subsurface at what was then the Kent & Queen Anne’s Hospital. Shore Health claims that a recovery system has reclaimed 83,000 gallons so far and that it is safe to turn off a containment system that has kept the oil from moving offsite in the direction of the town’s water plant.

The spill site lays 1,100 feet uphill from the town’s drinking water plant and the Chester River lays another few hundred feet beyond the water plant. The spill is said to be the largest underground heating oil release in Maryland’s history.

The council authorized Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes to proceed with engaging a consultant to prepare a scope of work for the potential comprehensive study. Neither Shore Regional Health nor Maryland Department of the Environment have responded to the Kent Pilot for comments on the town’s request.

So whether Shore Health will allow the town access to the hospital’s property remains in question.

Under a 2016 agreement between the town and UMMS Shore Regional Health, once MDE approves shutdown of the containment system it is presumed that the hospital oil spill is no longer a threat to the town’s drinking water supply if six subsequent months of monitoring demonstrates no oil contamination of more than 1 part per million in the ground water.

In the event of a future contamination, the town will have to overcome a rebuttable presumption that the hospital is not responsible for the contamination, according to the 2016 agreement. We recognize that hindsight is 20/20, but under the agreement negotiated by the town’s counsel the town gave the hospital the upper hand. The rebuttable presumption clause created a much steeper climb for the town to hold the hospital accountable and recover any cost to deal with future contamination.

The town agreed to the rebuttable presumption clause without requiring a comprehensive study to understand the existing conditions at the site. The rebuttable presumption is a very high barrier for the town to overcome and puts the town in a weak position.

In the more than 30 years since the spill, no comprehensive site boring study to ascertain the status of the oil spill remnants has been performed. Sipes advised the mayor and council that he has been requesting a comprehensive study for seven years. You would not buy a piece of property without a title search–the same principle applies.

Mayor Foster intends to rectify this. Foster ran for council in 2017 on a platform of strong oversight and more transparency on the oil spill clean-up progress. As mayor, he has wasted no time shifting the town from passive participant to actively addressing an important baseline study of where we really stand.

With the Kent County Commissioners joining in this effort, getting a handle on the scope of the remaining oil and protecting the town’s drinking water supply is now a Kent County priority.

This was a good first week for Mayor David Foster and for the people of Chestertown.