Oil spill cleanup at hospital moves toward closeup

The Maryland Department of the Environmental has approved a six-month pilot program that will allow University of Maryland Shore Regional Health to shut down its pump-and-treat oil spill remediation operation at the hospital in Chestertown for six months.

CHESTERTOWN — As it moves toward closing out cleanup of a decades-old heating oil spill at the hospital here, the University of Maryland Shore Regional Health will shut down its pump-and-treat operation for six months under a pilot program approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

What that would mean for Chestertown was discussed at the regularly scheduled meeting of the mayor and council Monday night, June 15 with SRH representatives participating via the Zoom teleconferencing platform.

Ken Kozel, CEO and president of Shore Regional Health, said the University of Maryland Medical System and SRH remain “absolutely committed to our obligation and our intention to clean the soil of any heating oil residual” from the late 1980s spill at what was then known as Chester River Hospital (now UM Shore Medical Center at Chestertown).

The leak, which predated the hospital’s affiliation with UMMS and SRH, went undetected and unreported for years. It’s not known how large the spill was, but all parties agree that about 83,000 gallons of oil have been recovered from a spill that was at least twice that amount.

After what Kozel described as “a major soil cleaning operation” done with the approval of the MDE, there is very little residuals remaining in the soil, he told the council.

“Given the microscopic results we have recorded for the past six to 12 months, we now have an opportunity to temporarily turn off the pumps, leave them in place and ready them to be turned back on if needed, while we monitor the amounts of any remaining residuals in the soil,” Kozel said.

The MDE has signed off on the pilot post-remedial monitoring plan.

Throughout the pilot phase, Shore Regional Health will be required to maintain all equipment in place and be ready to restart the pump-and-treat system if necessary. Plus, daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly monitoring and testing results will be provided to MDE and copies will be sent to the town as well.

Kozel said even if the MDE determines that the pilot is successful after the initial six-month period, the state agency will require Shore Regional Health to continue to monitor the groundwater near the hospital for two years to ensure that no further operation of the pump-and-treat system is necessary.

Under a separate agreement with the town, SRH must continue to monitor the sentinel wells protecting the town’s water supply for an additional year after that and to take any necessary steps to protect the water supply if needed, Kozel said.

Kozel said the “efforts are far from over, but we and MDE believe we are ready to move to the next phase of the remediation process and run a pilot test without the pump-and-treat system running.”

SRH is not asking for a closeout, technical advisor Dean Bauer, a senior vice president of H&B Solutions, told the council.

He said: “This is a test to see if we turn off the pump and treat, and the hydraulic controls are removed, and the water table comes up and comes in contact with the soils that we treated, if we’re going to get rebound or not. ... This is an essential part of our own assessment as to whether or not we have completely cleaned this site up. We’ll only know if we let the groundwater come up and be in contact with the soils again.”

Why now, asked Councilman Tom Herz.

Record rainfalls over the last two years and higher seasonal water tables than normal provide the best chance “of having a high water table so that when we turn the system off they’ll come in contact with these shallower soils. And if we’re going to get a rebound, we’ll see it. We want the high water table,” Bauer said.

MDE’s approval dictates that the pump-and-treat system must be able to be turned back on within a matter of days if “something untowards happens” and monitoring must be done daily, Bauer said when asked by Herz for assurances about the safety of the town’s water supply.

If the contamination field expands and the pump-and-treat system is not sufficient to remediate the expanded field, SRH has a written agreement with the town to relocate another well on behalf of the town, Kozel said.

“It’s scary stuff ... a very concerning issue for us because of our drinking water,” Mayor Chis Cerino said.

While acknowledging that this is not possible, he said, “If I had my choice, you’d keep the pumps running forever.”

Bauer said the pumps have not been turned off, but he would like to do so as soon as possible while the water table is still exceedingly high. He said he would notify the town when the pump-and-treat system shuts down.

The first six months will cost an additional $100,000 because of the increased testing that MDE is requiring, Kozel said in answering a question from Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver about potential savings.

“If three years from now we are free and clear of this spill, and the spill has been officially closed out by MDE, those financial resources — and we’re up to the millions of dollars over the last 30 years — ... money we continue to make as an organization will be reinvested in the communities we serve,” Kozel said.

Kozel said SRH will hold some of that money in reserve because of its commitment to the town to replace wells or redig wells if needed.

Over the last 30 years, the remediation costs have totaled more than $5 million, Kozel said in answering a question asked by Herz. Kozel estimated the costs at north of $200,000 a year in testing and consulting fees, and reporting to MDE.

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