Showing frustration and little faith in UMMS Shore Regional Health and Maryland Department of the Environment’s handling of a major heating oil spill at the hospital here, Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes called for the town to have the EPA review the case to “see that it’s being handled properly.”

The oil spill has posed a risk of contamination to the town’s water supply for many years, just four football fields downhill from the hospital. 

Sipes’ request at the July 6 council meeting comes after a decade’s long trail of miscommunication between the town and Shore Health about cleanup methods and standards that have been challenged by a former MDE official, Ward 1 Councilman David Foster and Sipes himself. They lament a history of little or no transparency with town officials and the citizens whose water supply remains at risk of contamination from the spill. 

The hospital oil spill site sits on a Class 1 aquifer that supplies the town much of its drinking water. Class 1 Aquifers are “of unusually high value but highly vulnerable to contamination and are irreplaceable sources of drinking water and/or ecologically vital.” 

Most recently, the containment system, an array of pumps and recovery wells that keeps oil from migrating downhill to the town’s water supply, was shut down for nearly two months without the town’s knowledge. The shutdown was revealed after the Kent Pilot made an inquiry to MDE about the status of the containment system.

Roughly 50 wells have been installed on the site over the years to monitor and recover oil; so far 83,000 gallons have been recovered by the system. It is estimated that roughly 80,000 more gallons remain in the subsurface.

The Shore Health CEO Ken Kozel claims they knew nothing of the recent shutdown, but it was buried in a 300-page quarterly report that Shore Health recently submitted to MDE.

The Kent Pilot tried to contact Shore Health’s technical advisor, Dane Bauer, but he said he was not authorized to speak with the press.

Sipes’ request also comes after a 2016 consent order between MDE and Shore Health was modified recently in the hospital’s favor to allow a new testing procedure that would hasten a permanent shutdown of the containment system. The new testing regime cleans samples before they are tested and removes many of the contaminants that should be tested for, Sipes said.

“It changes the criteria we’ve been using for 30 years,” Sipes said. “It doesn’t change the contamination on the site, but it sure makes it look a whole lot cleaner than it really is.”

The 2016 consent order requires that testing of the groundwater show results of 1 part per million or less before a permanent shutdown of the system could begin. But the new testing procedure in almost all cases reduces the test sample results that are above 1ppm by up to 99 percent — and gives an otherwise failing test a passing grade.

Sipes believes the sole purpose of the new cleanup method, recently approved by MDE, is to make the site legal in order to permanently shut down the containment system.

“I don’t think this is a thing where they’re trying to achieve a more accurate result, they were just trying to achieve a lower result,” Sipes told the council.

MDE told the Kent Pilot recently that the test results from the new testing procedure did in fact meet the legal criteria to allow a shutdown of the containment system. But MDE did not respond to a request from the Kent Pilot to show where these new testing procedures have been used on any spill site of this magnitude in the state to guide decisions that ended a cleanup program of a large oil spill.

Sipes said the new standards being applied to the cleanup are designed for an “industrial site that is 50 miles away from any inhabited areas.”

“There is not enough attention being paid in my opinion to the fact that this is a Class 1 aquifer,” he said. He said MDE wouldn’t apply the new standards they are using if they acknowledged that the aquifer that supplies drinking water to the town is a Class 1.

More testing needed

Sipes said there are 55 wells at the site and only 15 were recently tested, of which nine failed under the traditional testing method that has been used for many years. But when the “Cleanup” method is used, all but one of the wells was below 1ppm and met the criteria for closeout.

He said sampling all the wells would “characterize the whole site instead of the 15 wells we keep looking at.”