Following an inquiry from the Kent Pilot, Maryland Department of the Environment has learned that the oil containment system at the hospital was shut down for almost two months without the town or MDE’s knowledge, causing MDE to cancel a scheduled shut down of the system for July 6 under a pilot program the agency approved in April.

The system, an array of pumps and recovery wells, has protected the town’s water supply from a massive oil spill that occurred three decades ago. The system keeps the oil plume from moving downgradient towards the town’s water supply.

There has been wide disagreement between the hospital and the community about shutting the system down since 2012, when Shore Health began fast-tracking the closure of the system over the objections of experts and town leaders, who’ve said about 80,000 gallons of oil remain in the ground and sits precariously uphill from the town’s water plant.

Shutting the system down before the pilot program was to take effect, without MDE or the Town’s knowledge, drew the ire of the head of MDE’s oil control program.

In a letter to Shore Health CEO Ken Kozel on June 26, Christopher Ralston, Program Manager of MDE’s Oil Control Program, gave reasons he postponed the July 6 pilot study.

“We are concerned and disappointed to learn that this prolonged outage of the P&T system, a central component of the approved remediation, was not clearly and promptly reported to MDE. Instead, this fact was buried in the back of a +300 page report. A change in conditions of this significance should have been immediately and specifically brought to MDE’s attention, and then presented in the first few pages of the report.

In effect, the P&T system was shut down for 1.5 to 2 months without anyone being informed. This is particularly concerning given that MDE and the Town of Chestertown have both emphasized the need for full transparency and timely communication regarding this project.

At this point in time, MDE is pausing the approval to shut the P&T system down on July 6, 2020. We require a full and clear accounting of what was known, when it was known, and by whom it was known. This needs to be provided to MDE no later than July 2, 2020.

We want to be abundantly clear, that full transparency during the remainder of this project is absolutely required. It was highly inappropriate after the long history with this project for MDE not to have been made aware of the P&T system equipment issues and resulting downtime. Going forward, this cannot be tolerated.”

Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes said he was unaware of any shutdown.

Mayor Chris Cerino could not be reached for comment.

Update: In an email to town staff and council members, Cerino captured the lack of transparency over the years on the hospital oil spill:

“This is obviously extremely disappointing, and is at the heart of the ongoing distrust between the Town and the Hospital,” Cerino wrote. “The good news is that MDE is now fired up about this and my hope is that they will hold everyone’s feet to the fire at UMMS/Shore Regional Health for the foreseeable future.”

News of the recent shut down comes after a June 15 council meeting where Kozel stressed that transparency was paramount to Shore Health’s relationship with the town.

The Kent Pilot will followup on this story.

Related stories:

Oil Cleanup System at Hospital Should Remain ON to Protect Drinking Water Supply, Councilman and Former MDE Official Say

Newest Oil Cleanup Plan at Hospital Still Threatens Town Water Supply, Utilities Manager Says