The Chestertown Council has asked Maryland Department of the Environment to prohibit Shore Regional Health from using a disputed new method to determine whether it’s safe to turn off a containment system that for decades has kept a massive heating oil spill at the hospital from endangering the town’s drinking water.
The containment system was put in place in the 1990’s after an estimated 160,000 gallons of heating oil leaked from a broken fill pipe that serviced the hospital’s tank. Shore Health says they’ve recovered about 85,000 gallons.
The new testing method artificially lowers the measurement of parts per million of contamination in the groundwater and is a departure from a consent order MDE signed with Shore Health in 2016. It is also a departure from a separate agreement between the Town of Chestertown and Shore Health that same year that’s designed to compensate the town in the event oil ever shows up in the town’s drinking water, said Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes in several reports to the town council.
The new method removes much of the contaminants that need to be accounted for and doesn’t change what is actually in an aquifer that supplies much of the town’s drinking water, Sipes said.
The new method is called the Silica Gel method and filters test samples drawn from the ground before they are tested under the traditional method. Sipes and a former MDE official with firsthand knowledge of the hospital oil spill said tests results under the Silica Gel method are not a true measure of what is in the ground. They say the Silica method should not be the metric that will allow Shore Regional Health to turn off the containment system, which would put the town’s water plant at an increased risk of becoming undrinkable.
The containment system is a series of pumps and recovery wells that keep the oil plume from moving off site in the direction of the water plant — and the Chester River less than 100 yards beyond.
Recent reports from the hospital indicate that test results of less than 1ppm in the groundwater have met compliance to shutdown the contaminant system using the Silica Gel method. But test results using the same samples under the traditional test method were well above 1ppm and failed to meet compliance with the 2016 agreements, according to Sipes.
In an email to the Kent Pilot on July 2, MDE Spokesman Jay Apperson said Shore Health’s test results of under 1ppm using the Silica Gel method met the legal terms of the 2016 consent order between Shore Health and MDE. And the Town of Chestertown is now concerned that Shore Health will try to use the Silica Gel method to meet compliance in the separate agreement with the town as well.
A letter to MDE on Sept. 10, the town wrote that the efficacy of the Silica Gel method was in dispute and cited EPA chemists who raised concerns that the silica method actually interferes with the traditional 8015 method to measure the actual levels of contaminants.
Copied in the letter was Shore Health’s Attorney Michael Powell of Gordon Feinblatt, who disputed the Town’s concerns the next day in a letter to MDE.
In response, the town has sent another letter to MDE asking for a meeting to review the science.
“The fact that the town’s water supply is a sensitive receptor in this ongoing remediation confirms the need to prioritize and review scientific data,” the letter said.
Shore Health has been pushing for about a decade to close out the case file and turn off containment system, but they’ve met resistance along the way due to a lack of transparency and from citizens and officials who’ve challenged the science in the methods Shore Health has used to hasten the shutdown of the containment system.