Maryland Department of the Environment and Shore Regional Health’s new environmental consultant assured the Town Council on Friday, Nov. 20 that there is little risk to the town’s water supply from a heating oil spill decades ago at the hospital that was estimated at over 160,000 gallons.

Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes and Ward 1 Councilman David Foster have estimated that 84,000 gallons remains in the ground based on the latest EPA science. The science was confirmed in a presentation by Ken Guttman of Gannett Fleming, Shore Health’s new consultant, who said the rule of thumb is only 50 percent of oil spills can be recovered.

He said quantity wasn’t the issue.

“What’s left behind is not a volume issue, it’s a risk issue,” he said. “Yes, it’s there but…the risk is how MDE and EPA approach it. They don’t expect a release to be cleaned up to every gallon. The expectation is you remove it until there’s an acceptable level that all the risk is gone and there’s no concern for it.”

Chris Ralston, chief of MDE’s oil control program, dismissed the rule of thumb standard in the absence of other data and said tests in 2016 “don’t bear out that there’s any significant residual [oil] anywhere near the neighborhood of 84,000 gallons.” 

“These rule of thumb estimates are great if you don’t have any other data, they’re great for general planning,” he said. He said borings of the soil in 2016 specifically looked for pockets of unaccounted for oil and the tests showed very little.

“That study really didn’t bear out there is anything of consequence,” Ralston said. He did agree with Guttman that the oil spill poses little risk to the town’s drinking water plant, which sits 1,200 feet downslope from the oil spill.

Guttman also said there was no evidence of a paleo channel (ancient river bed) connecting the spill site to the water plant. The paleo channel was well documented by a former MDE geologist, Fred Keer, who managed the cleanup of the site from 1996 to 2007. 

Keer, who has 30 years experience in environmental cleanup said there is “absolutely a paleo channel” that slopes towards the water plant. When the spill was discovered, a town well that ran through the paleo channel was turned off to guard against it drawing oil down hill.

Another sticking point with the town is a new testing method the hospital is using to measure contaminants in the groundwater samples. According to Sipes, the new method makes water samples appear cleaner than they are and is outside the lane of a 2016 consent agreement that would ultimately allow Shore Health to turn off a containment system that has stopped oil from migrating towards the water plant since the 1990s.

The 2016 agreement stipulates an industry standard method to measure compliance that would ultimately permit Shore Health to shut down the containment system if contaminate levels were consistently below 1 part per million. 

Foster and Sipes believe the new method, the silica method, simply filters out contaminants in water samples that are simply in an altered state, but are no less toxic. Many states do not allow the silica method to be used as a standard to measure whether a site has been cleaned adequately. 

The Town’s attorney on the matter, Michael Forlini,  said EPA’s Office of Research and Development has expressed a “documented concern” about the use of the silica method to get a true picture of the level of oil contamination and the success of cleanup efforts. 

He said EPA chemists have expressed concern that the silica method filters out contaminants that are normally included in the standard tests.

The containment system could be turned off for a trial period as early as next spring.