Ward 1 Councilman David Foster

Chestertown could be getting some pro bono help from the DC law firm of Bergeson & Campbell to push Maryland Department of the Environment to reply to questions about the hospital oil spill here that have repeatedly gone unanswered.

Ward 1 Councilman David Foster said he came in contact with the Chesapeake Alliance after discussions with the Chestertown Environmental Committee. The Chesapeake Alliance is a group of attorneys that pairs communities and organizations with “top notch environmental lawyers.”

“The Chesapeake Alliance looked at our situation and really felt that they could get some top people involved,” Foster said at Monday’s Town Council meeting. He said this led to a zoom call with Lynn Bergeson, the founder of Bergeson & Campbell, who is also a Kent County resident and a member of the Washington College Board of Visitors.

“She really is vested in Chestertown and they have offered to assist us pro bono with this incredible problem we have regarding the oil spill,” Foster said.

“I’m not  looking at this in terms of a lawsuit at this point,” Foster said.  He said it was a matter of the town knowing its legal options and learning how other communities have approached similar problems.

At issue with Foster, is questions to MDE about a new testing method that is not well proven as the standard for measuring contaminants in oil spills. 

This summer, water quality reports from Shore Regional Health indicated that a new test was being used to meet compliance, which Town Utilities Manager Bob Sipes complained was artificially showing cleaner water (less contaminants) than actually exists in the groundwater. 

The testing method departs from a consent order agreement between Shore Health and MDE — and a separate agreement between the Town and Shore Health that specified a different testing method to meet compliance with the cleanup mandate.

Several letters from the Town to MDE over the summer specifically asked if the new testing method would be used as a metric to allow Shore Health to turn off a containment system that has kept an oil plume, estimated at 80,000 gallons remaining from the spill, from moving offsite in the direction of the town’s drinking wells.

Sipes, Foster and the former MDE official who supervised cleanup of the site for over decade have said turning off the containment system leaves the town’s water supply at risk. The water plant is just 1,100 feet downhill from the spill site.

Foster, a former EPA Engineer, said Chris Ralston who heads MDE’s Oil Control Program, has failed to give answers about the use of the new testing method and said that MDE has treated the community here poorly regarding the oil spill.

“Chris Ralston has been dragging his feet…I don’t know why,” Foster said. “I was with the EPA for nearly 20 years [and] I never saw a state agency treat one of their communities the way he’s treating us.”

Foster said the law firm was a “phenomenal resource out there and they’re interested in the problem, they’re vested in our community.”

He said it would be a good opportunity, short of a lawsuit, to explore the town’s options.

Foster has been against turning off the containment system at the hospital for many years, as a community activist and a town councilman.

Though the town has obtained legal counsel in the past to protect the town’s interests, Foster said it was time to get a second opinion, similar to getting a second opinion from a doctor in a medical emergency.

“This is an environmental emergency and I think we need to look at some of the other experts out there,” Foster said. “Particularly when they’re willing to assist us pro bono on this. I don’t see a downside.”

“We do need to take some action,” said Ward 1 Councilwoman Meghan Efland. “If we can get an attorney, even pro bono, if it’s just the beginning stages of it to better understand our rights, that’s a step forward in a major way.”

Cerino Cautions Getting Attorneys Involved

“I think we just need very specific goals that we want to get out of this,” Cerino said. “What do we specifically want the end game to be if [Bergeson & Campbell] are helping us?”

Cerino was pessimistic about getting any more from the hospital than what’s contained in the 2016 agreements.

“They have a pretty good sense of what their obligation is to us,” Cerino said. “We just need to really know what we want to get out of this. Once word gets out that…the town is talking to this high powered team of attorneys…that could actually backfire in making our life challenging with MDE.”

Foster responded that MDE’s failure to respond to the town’s questions regarding compliance requires the town to explore other options.