On July 6, Shore Regional Health will shut down the containment system at the hospital that has protected the town’s water supply from a massive heating oil spill since the 1990s, but Ward 1 Councilman David Foster and Fred Keer, a former Maryland Department of the Environment official with first-hand knowledge of the spill, say the system should remain on indefinitely to keep oil from migrating offsite.

“We know the oil plume could move downgradient towards the water plant,” Keer said, during a tour of the spill site he regulated for 11 years for MDE. 

The containment system, a series of pumps and recovery wells, acts hydraulically to pull the oil contamination back to the spill site and prevent the oil plume from migrating towards the water plant, roughly 1,500 away.

The spill has been estimated at 160,000 gallons.

One known pathway for the oil to migrate is a paleochannel (ancient underground streambed) that connects the spill site to the town’s water plant, which is about two football fields from the Chester River. 

Keer, a geologist, said the hospital sits at the headwaters of the paleochannel, which runs down the west side of Byford Drive and in the path of the town’s water well field.

He said while the paleochannel has been defined as a risk to the water supply, other scenarios have so far not been defined.

“We know where the oil is in general but we don’t know the hidden pathways that could be of great significance to the rate at which the plume could move towards the drinking water field,” Keer said.

Keer and Foster, a former EPA engineer, have said for several years now that EPA science calculates that 80,000 gallons of heating oil could remain in the subsurface based on estimates of what has so far been recovered by the containment system. And Shore Health says they’ve recovered 83,000 gallons. 

EPA guidance dictates that only 50 percent of petroleum spills can be recovered and based on this guidance, Keer, Foster and Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes have held fast to the EPA science that estimates 80,000 gallons remains in the subsurface at the hospital. 

Sipes said the original estimates of the spill “started out as guesswork” and ranged from 1,000 to 8,000 gallons.

“But our estimate is based on guidance from the EPA,” Sipes said during the walkthrough of the site. Sipes said he asked MDE in 2016 if they were using other than EPA guidance or if the EPA guidance had changed. Sipes said he received no response.

Shore Health CEO Kent Kozel won approval from MDE to turn the containment system off on July 6, citing there is little oil left to recover and the high costs of maintaining the containment system.

But Sipes, Foster and Keer say the hospital and MDE need to account for 80,000 gallons of oil before the system is turned off.

Until then, Keer said the hospital should install a line of pumps and recovery wells on the north side of Brown Street for the “indefinite future” to act as a hydraulic dam to contain the oil.

He said a major problem with shutting off the system is “wet seasons.”

“You could have a couple of wet seasons and the contamination could move very rapidly down gradient,” Keer said. “But you’re not going to really know that until it’s detected.”

Sipes said the costs of maintaining the containment system is a non-starter when it comes to protecting the town’s drinking wells.

He said what the hospital has spent trying to close out the site in the last five years could “have kept the containment system running for a long time.”

“The University of Maryland took on the responsibility of the oil spill when they took over the hospital years ago,” he said.

The Kent Pilot reached out to Shore Health and MDE on June 24 with questions regarding the impending July 6 shutdown; we did not receive a response by the time this story ran.