Ward 1 Councilman Sam Shoge announced Monday he will take a leave of absence from Shore Regional Health’s Board of Directors while the town negotiates with the hospital system to study a 30-year-old heating spill there that poses a potential risk to the town’s drinking water supply.

Sam Shoge was nominated to fill the Ward 1 seat after Mayor David Foster vacated it to become mayor following the resignation of Chris Cerino on April 6.

“Considering how we are now engaging in this oil spill conversation, I thought it would be a good time to take a step back and confirm that I am very much so with the town,” Shoge said.

Shoge said once negotiations with the hospital were initiated he immediately moved to avoid any conflicts of interest.

“That’s a very glaring, obvious conflict of interest,” he said. “I did take steps not only in recusing myself from the board — but taking it a step further and taking a leave of absence; I’ve essentially been cut off in terms of communications.”

“I just want everybody to know that I’m 100 percent on the town’s side in trying to figure out what the most appropriate…solution is to this situation,” he said.

University of Maryland Shore Regional Health recently made a request to the Maryland Department of the Environment to turn off a containment system at the hospital that has kept the plume of oil from escaping in the direction of the water plant for many years. The containment system consists of a series of pumps and recovery wells that keep the plume from moving offsite in the direction of the town’s water plant and wells.

In its request to the agency, Shore Regional Health claimed that any remaining oil would biodegrade before it ever reached the water plant.

But the town wants a site study to determine what happened to an estimated 80,000 gallons of heating oil that is still unaccounted for — before the containment system is turned off.

At the May 17 town council meeting, Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes was granted permission to engage an environmental firm to conduct a preliminary study of the data and devise a plan for the town to follow up with a more comprehensive site investigation, which could require drilling.  This would require Shore Health to grant the town access to their property to conduct the study.

The Kent County Commissioners got involved on May 18 and voted 3-0 to pay the cost of a preliminary proposal up to $10,000, with the possibility of contributing more if needed.

Shore Health’s recent request to MDE to turn off the containment system has been met with concerns over transparency after Shore Health was fined $10,000 last year for failing to report that the containment system had been shut down for three months. The town and MDE had no knowledge that the containment system was not functioning.

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