In an interview with the Kent Pilot on Wednesday, Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes called for a site investigation of the hospital where an estimated 80,000 gallons of heating oil remains from a massive spill a quarter-century ago.
Sipes said the purpose of a site investigation would be to assure local residents here that the oil spill no longer poses a threat to the town’s drinking water supply — before Maryland Department of the Environment grants University of Maryland Shore Regional Health permission to turn off the containment system that has kept the oil from moving 1,100 feet downslope in the direction of the drinking water plant.
The Kent Pilot reached out to MDE, Shore Health and Shore Health’s consultant, Gannett Fleming, to see if they would agree to a site investigation to support claims that the oil spill no longer poses a threat to the water supply.
The only response was from MDE; the agency said they were waiting for a response from town officials on Shore Health’s request to shut down the containment system “as part of the agency’s review and response” process. The agency offered no indication whether they’d agree to a site investigation.
Sipes said the site investigation should consist of borings that would extract core samples to determine the absence or presence of heating oil in the ground.
In a brief interview on Thursday, Chestertown Mayor David Foster said he wanted to hear more from Sipes at the next council meeting.
“I’m interested in Sipes’ proposal on this,” Foster said. “I’ve never before seen a budget for a study like this and who would cover the cost.”
“I’m pleased that [Sipes] is very conscientious and has served us quite well,” Foster added.
Foster echoed Sipes’ concerns about Shore Health and MDE’s decision to switch the testing methods that determine whether contamination levels have dropped below one part per million, a metric required in a 2016 consent agreement between Shore Health and the town before the containment system could be turned off.
The new test, known as the silica method, filters out contaminants before the amount of heating oil components is measured. Sipes has complained since the introduction of the test that it is a “smoke and mirrors” approach to make the spill site look cleaner than it actually is.
Sipes and Foster agree that the silica test can be used as a monitoring tool but it should not be used as a compliance tool to determine if the containment system is safe to turn off.
“The town is on record challenging the use of the silica test to make determinations of this kind,” Foster said.
Foster also added that the town’s pro bono environmental law firm has challenged the “appropriateness” of the silica test for the hospital oil spill.
“They’ve asked MDE repeatedly when and where the silica gel test has been used for this purpose, and MDE has yet to respond on that,” he said.
Shore Health’s request to turn off the containment system came with an attempt to ensure the oil would become inert.
“Our expectation is that the dissolved hydrocarbons in groundwater will biodegrade before they reach the sentinel wells,” the request said.
Foster said the hospital should have no problem allowing a test to prove the success of the cleanup process.
“If there’s nothing there, then an [investigation] to show there’s nothing there would help their case,” Foster said.
But Sipes has insisted that the components that remain from biodegradation are still not safe to drink.
Ward 3 Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver said he would ask Sipes to discuss his proposal for a site investigation at Monday’s council meeting, on May 17.