University of Maryland Shore Regional Health has won approval from Maryland Department of the Environment to shut down a containment system at the hospital that for three decades has kept a major heating oil spill from migrating downslope towards the town’s water plant. The shutdown is being called a “pilot study.”

The proposed shutdown, approved in late April and unveiled at the June 15 town council meeting, raised concerns from Mayor Chris Cerino.

“It’s very concerning because of our drinking water,” Cerino said. He said his choice would be to keep the system running.

“It’s scary stuff,” he said.

The spill began in the late 1980s and was the result of a leaking underground heating oil tank that was repeatedly refilled before the spill was detected.  It is estimated that the spill released 160,000 gallons into the subsurface.

The containment system, consisting of pumps and recovery wells, was installed in the early 90s and works as a hydraulic dam to prevent oil from escaping downslope directly in the path of the town’s water plant through an ancient underground riverbed.

Shore Health wants to turn the containment system off on claims that there’s no significant amount of residual oil still in the ground.

The MDE regulator who managed the cleanup from 1996 to 2007, Fred Keer, has estimated there is roughly 80,000 gallons remaining below the surface.

But over the years Shore Health has claimed that the size of the spill is not fully known and has often cited figures well below what Keer and the latest EPA science says most likely remains in the subsurface.

EPA guidance says it is unlikely to recover more than 50 percent of a fuel oil spill that leaks into the subsurface. Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes and Ward 1 Councilman David Foster also believe that 80,000 gallons of oil remain unaccounted for.

Shore Health claimed at the June 15 council meeting that the pump and treat system, and the recent use of an alcohol-based solvent, has cleaned the site to the point where only an insignificant amount of residual contamination remains at the site. Shore Health says they’ve recovered 83,000 gallons of oil.

“This successful effort, and subsequent monitoring and testing, has now produced results that give very little evidence of residuals remaining in the soil,” said Shore Health CEO Ken Kozel at a virtual Town Council meeting on June 15.

But Foster, a former EPA engineer, reiterated the EPA guidance at the June 15 meeting.

“This was a huge, huge spill,” Foster said. “Since you can only remove 50 percent…that means the original spill was at least 160,000 gallons.”

Shore Health’s new pilot study calls for the containment system to be turned off for six months to allow monitoring and testing to determine if the level of contaminants start to rebound when the groundwater levels return to normal. 

Sipes worries that a total shutdown of the system could release the plume in the direction of the water plant, and there is no level of contamination specified in the MDE approval letter of April 24 that would require Shore Health to reactivate the containment system should monitoring reveal that the level of contaminants is again on the rise.

Shore Health’s consent order with MDE requires that the closeout [shutdown] of the pump and treat system can only begin when the level of contaminants are at or below 1 part per million, and recent testing indicates that nine monitoring wells tested on April 16 exceed 1ppm; one monitoring well indicated as much as 10ppm on April 16. (See chart below)


The Kent Pilot contacted Shore Health’s technical advisor, Dane Bauer, to ask why the hospital was going ahead with a six-month shutdown before contaminant levels had met the 1 part per million or less standard. He responded that he was not authorized to speak with the press on the oil spill.

Sipes believes the designation of a ‘pilot study’ is a way of circumventing the consent order that requires test results of 1ppm or less to turn off the pumps.

Sipes said shutting the system down now is premature because the levels of contaminants have not fallen to 1 part per million or less, as required in a 2016 consent agreement between MDE and Shore Health.

“A closeout allows for turning the [pump-and-treat] system off, which is exactly what they’re doing here with the pilot study,” Sipes said. “It’s not a ‘study or test’ if there is no plan to turn the system back on.”

After six months, on approval from MDE, Shore Health can then proceed to the next phase of closing out the site, which would allow the pump-and-treat system to remain turned off for another 24 months provided testing has achieved 1 part per million or less of contaminants.

At the end of the 24-months, Shore Health would only be required to monitor seven sentinel wells for an additional year under a separate agreement with the town made in 2016, which says any level of contaminants exceeding .47 parts per million would result in an unspecified remedy from Shore Health. 

“Whatever that remedy is, is not spelled out in the [2016] agreement,” Sipes said.