At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes said a recent response from an Aug. 3 letter to Maryland Department of the Environment failed to address the town’s concerns about the new testing methods UMMS Shore Regional Health is now using to measure the level of contamination that remains in the ground from a massive heating oil spill at the hospital decades ago.
It is believed that 80,000 gallons still remains in the ground and sits precariously 1,100 feet uphill from the town’s drinking water plant.
The hospital is now using a new test method to determine safe levels of contaminants that will ultimately allow a permanent shutdown of a containment system that was engineered over the years to keep the large oil plume from escaping offsite in the direction of the water plant.
The containment system is a series of pumps and recovery wells that keeps oil from moving offsite.
But the new testing method, the Silica Gel Test, filters out much of the components in the oil and artificially lowers the results, Sipes has now said in several reports to the town council.
The safe levels were established in a consent agreement between Shore Health and MDE — and in a separate agreement between Chestertown and Shore Health in 2016 — to determine when the containment system could be shut down and when Shore Health would have to reactivate it in the event oil levels began to rise again in the monitoring wells, which act as an early warning system. The safe levels were to be measure by EPA method 8015, according to the 2016 agreements.
According to the MDE/Shore Health consent agreement, when the levels of contamination fell below 1 part per million, the hospital could seek permission from MDE to shut down the containment system. And when the levels began to climb again, Shore Health would be required to take action to protect the town’s water supply, which could include reactivating the containment system.
Sipes said the new Silica test can take a measurement 5ppm under the original test standard and artificially reduce it to .5ppm — and essentially give the test a passing grade in order to proceed with a shutdown of the containment system.
“But this doesn’t change what’s in the ground,” Sipes said at the Sept. 8 Town Council meeting. “What’s in the ground is still 5ppm.”
“How can say you’re measuring all the contaminants when some of them are intentionally being removed by the Silica Gel test,” Sipes said.
Under the new standard, MDE has granted Shore Health approval to turn off the containment system by the end of October.
The new Silica test began appearing in the quarterly sampling results in the third quarter of 2017. In the second quarter of 2018, the Silica test results were published with a new legend stating that some monitoring wells had met “Consent Order Criteria” of less than 1 part per million, but the traditional testing methods indicated that 11 monitoring wells exceeded the 1ppm standard defined in the consent order.
Sipes said that under the original test standards, Shore Health has failed to meet the 1ppm or less metric in order to turn off the containment system.
The town has six shallow wells that tap into a Class 1 Aquifer as defined by the EPA, which means the aquifer is being used for drinking water and that the “cost of replacing that water source to a population of 500 or more is not financially feasible.”
If the wells become contaminated, Sipes said the cost to make the water drinkable would initially reach up to $1 million with $200,000 in annual remediation costs to keep the water safe. He said contamination could ultimately force the town to dramatically increase utility rates or abandon the current wells altogether. In that event the town would have to move the water plant and dig even deeper to reach a clean water source, costing millions more.
“You’re talking about a water plant in a different location,” Sipes said.
In an Aug. 3 letter from the town to MDE, the town asked that the original test standards penned in the 2016 agreement be used to establish when Shore Health has met the 1ppm standard for shutdown of the containment system.
In MDE’s response they said they would continue to allow the use of the Silica Gel test as a tool to measure Shore Health’s compliance with the consent agreement, although the Silica test is never mentioned in the agreements.
But in a letter from the town dated Sept. 10, Mayor Chris Cerino urged MDE to stick to the testing regime that was laid out in the 2016 agreement and that using the Silica test could put the drinking water water at risk.
“The Town believes that all long-term sampling requirements, future reports, and analysis must focus solely on data generated from EPA…methods that are required for use in federal solid and hazardous waste programs, Cerino wrote. “The Town is concerned that the Silica Gel Cleanup Method…will not provide accurate data which is of the utmost importance in protecting the Town’s water supply.”
The letter also disputes the science MDE claims in the value of the Silica test published by the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council. There is no agreement within the EPA on the efficacy of the test and the Town also disputes the IRTC’s science that claims the Silica test when used with traditional methods produces a more accurate result of the level of contaminants.
“The Town cautions MDE to reconsider this approach given the proximity of the Town’s water source,” Cerino said.