University of Maryland Shore Regional Health for yet another year is attempting to gain approval from Maryland Department of the Environment to permanently shut down a containment system that for a quarter-century has kept a heating oil spill at the hospital here from escaping offsite and down slope in the direction of the town’s water supply.

The containment system was put in place in the 1990s after an estimated 160,000 gallons of heating oil leaked from a broken fill pipe in the hospital’s oil tank.

Shore Health says they’ve recovered about 85,000 gallons and residents and town officials are concerned about the remaining contamination that is unaccounted for, roughly 80,000 gallons. If oil were to escape it could travel the path of a paleo-channel, an ancient river bed, directly towards the water plant’s drinking wells and then on to Chester River.

Ward 1 Councilman David Foster has called the spill at the hospital site the largest in the state’s history, and for a decade Shore Health has made every effort to turn the system off by assuring residents here that there’s no further risk to the water supply. Foster is a former EPA engineer, who before taking office in 2017 was a major force in opposing the plans and methods of Shore Health to close out the case file on the spill.

Attempts to shut down the system, and the science behind Shore Health’s claim that there’s no further risk, has been challenged by Chestertown Town Utilities Manager Bob Sipes, elected leaders, residents and also a former MDE engineer who oversaw cleanup and containment of the spill site for 12 years.

Last spring the containment system was turned off without authorization, or the town’s knowledge, and punitive action was taken by MDE that cancelled a previously approved shutdown and fined Shore Health $10,000.  The fine came after a long train of frustration with Shore Health for being less than transparent about the remediation process.

Also of major contention with Foster and Sipes is a new test method that Shore Health began using to measure the parts per million of oil contamination. The new test was employed in 2017, a year after the town and Shore Health signed a consent agreement to use a standard EPA method (8015) test to measure the components of heating oil remaining at the site.

Under the new test, samples of the groundwater are run through a filtration system that removes many of the contaminants, which is of great concern to Sipes and Foster because it removes many components that are toxic and should be included in the test results, they say. Sipes has argued that the test is not the standard for what’s going on at the hospital — and used more widely in the petrochemical industry for industrial applications. He said the new test method, the Silica Gel method, makes the ground water appear less contaminated than it really is.

Many states do not use the test to measure hazardous chemicals in oil spills because the results do not provide a true measure of what is going on in the subsurface.

Under the 2016 agreement between Shore Health and Chestertown, no consideration could be given to shutting down the containment system until consistent testing indicated contamination had reached less than 1 part per million, which Shore Health consistently failed to achieve through the standard method laid out in the 2016 agreement.

Sipes has argued that Shore Health simply went to a different method to get a passing grade because the standard methods were yielding results well above 1ppm.

The ongoing disputes with Shore Health prompted Foster last year to seek the help of the Chesapeake Alliance, a group of attorneys that pairs communities and organizations with “top notch environmental lawyers.”

“The Chesapeake Alliance looked at our situation and really felt that they could get some top people involved,” Foster said at an October 2020 council meeting. He said this led to a zoom call with Lynn Bergeson, the founder of Bergeson & Campbell, who is also a Kent County resident and a member of the Washington College Board of Visitors.

The law firm recently interviewed Sipes following the recent request by Shore Health, through its consultant, to shut down the containment system. The town is in the process of preparing a response to Shore Health’s request.

The language is a little softer in this year’s request from Shore Health to turn off the containment system — as the consultant is no longer calling it a “shutdown” but instead a “discontinuation.”