An argument is brewing about a new testing method that measures the amount of contaminants that remain in the groundwater from a massive heating oil spill that occurred three decades ago at the hospital in Chestertown.

On one side is Maryland Department of the Environment and University of Maryland Shore Regional Health; and on the other, the town’s leadership and the citizens whose drinking water supply remains threatened by the oil spill — just 1,100 feet uphill from the town’s drinking wells. It is estimated that 80,000 gallons of heating oil still remains in the ground.

A 2016 consent order between MDE and Shore Health required that EPA test method “8015” be used to measure the parts per million of pollution in the groundwater. Once test results declined to 1ppm or less, Shore Health could then request a shutdown of the containment and treatment system and transition to a 24-month monitoring period only. 

The containment system acts as a hydraulic dam to keep the oil plume from moving in the direction of the town’s drinking water wells. Changing the method to measure pollution levels outside the original 2016 agreement is of great concern to Chestertown Utilities Manager Bob Sipes, especially if the new method prematurely leads to a shutdown of the system that has protected the town’s water supply for decades.

The 8015 analysis has been the long-standing gold standard to measure contaminants in oil spills and guide cleanup decisions for regulators. 

But MDE introduced a new test method in 2017 called the Silica Gel test, a year after the 2016 consent order was signed. The Silica method cleans the samples first before running them through 8015 method and can reduce the readings to below 1ppm. Many regulators put little faith in the Silica method as a guide to make decisions on closing out contamination sites of this magnitude.

Sipes does not find the Silica test useful because it removes from the samples “exactly what you’re supposed to be testing for.”

MDE says they can essentially change the agreement when they deem appropriate under a “Minor Technical Modification” clause in the 2016 consent order.

MDE Deputy Director of Communications Jay Apperson said in an email to the Kent Pilot on July 3 that results using the Silica method “met the legal terms of the [2016 consent order] to allow the hospital to propose to shut the pump and treat system off.”

In April, nine of the monitoring wells failed to meet the 1ppm standard using the 8015 method, but the Silica method brought eight of the wells into compliance. Shore Health asked and received permission from MDE to shutdown the containment system based on the Silica test. MDE did not consider the 8015 results in their decision.

While EPA doesn’t disallow the Silica method, the agency does not go out of its way to promote it and says it’s important to know the purpose of using the Silica cleanup method.

Only about a dozen states in the U.S. allow the Silica test to be used with and without the 8015 test. Other states are reluctant to use the Silica test because it is not mentioned as an 8015 standard.

The Kent Pilot also reached out to an independent lab in Maryland that said the Silica test is not commonly used in Maryland and that it was most likely used in the hospital case to remove “unwanted data.”

MDE would not answer a request for information on other sites in Maryland where the Silica test was used as a metric for regulatory guidance to closeout a contamination site like the one at the hospital.

Sipes will discuss the hospital’s latest plan at tonight’s council meeting.

Feature image: Flickr user Jenn Farr (cc: by-nc-sa)