County officials discuss tainting of stream from diesel fuel leak


More than 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel that began contaminating a small stream and surrounding soil near Piney Run Park in Sykesville more than a year ago has prompted a remediation effort by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Samples tested have determined that the leak is No. 2 diesel fuel, often used in heating oil, said Charles Fitzsimmons, on-site coordinator for the EPA.

The agency installed a dam last spring to block further spillage into the unnamed creek that is downstream from Piney Run Lake, a potential drinking water source for Carroll County. Officials stress there is no danger to any water supply.

"This spill is not in Piney Run Park, and the affected stream is downstream from Piney Run Lake and its dam," said James Slater, Carroll County's director of environment and resource protection.

An Eldersburg resident reported the spill more than a year ago, but the investigation did not begin in earnest until last spring. County officials openly discussed the restoration effort Thursday.

The EPA has cordoned off the wooded site while conducting a soil gas survey to trace the source of the leak. The spill, which officials estimate to be greater than 1,000 gallons, is confined to a densely wooded area at the bottom of a steep slope. The hill falls sharply to the unnamed narrow creek that feeds Piney Run, a stream that eventually flows into the Patapsco River. The stream is south of Piney Run Lake and does not feed the lake.

"Our first task was to prevent the spill from getting into the creek," Fitzsimmons said. "Now we are doing a soil gas survey following several paths to find the source. There is probably an underground tank or tanks somewhere that have leaked over time."

If the source is a tank, crews could dig a line to it and attach a pump that would pull out the contaminated material.

Episcopal Ministries to the Aging, the parent company of Fairhaven Retirement Community, owns the 300-acre property where the spill occurred. The company has cooperated with the investigation and is allowing the EPA to work on the property, officials said.

"We are as interested as EPA is to find out what has happened," said Charles Clark, vice president for facilities development at Episcopal Ministries to the Aging. "This is not in an area where anybody goes. It is wooded lowland, and we have no plans to use it at this point."

Few people frequent the area, except for occasional equestrians, hikers and ATV riders, who use the trails.

Rick Solomon of Eldersburg detected a strong gas odor and noticed a sheen on the creek's surface more than a year ago while riding his horse through the area.

"The fuel appeared to be extremely pure," Solomon said. "The smell was so strong that I was certain it wasn't coming from anyone using diesel in a back yard."

He immediately called the Maryland Department of the Environment, which dispatched a Hazmat team to the area. MDE officials initially attributed the spill to ATV riders. Solomon said the odor persisted, and he continued complaining to the county and to the MDE. But it was several months before anyone took action.

Carroll County receives hundreds of complaints such as Solomon's, and a small percentage of those are valid, said Slater, who also inspected the site. The level of groundwater often makes the sheen on the surface difficult to see, and the odor was not always so intense, Slater said.

"These things are out there, but unless somebody stumbles on to them, they are difficult to find," Slater said. "This could have been going on for a long time."

MDE inspectors returned to the site several times last spring. Once the water level rose, the sheen became more evident. The inspector also detected spillage in the surrounding soil.

"Very obvious diesel fuel was noticed surfacing through an underground spring and discharging into an unnamed creek feeding the Piney Run," according to an EPA Web site titled "Sykesville Oil Spill."

MDE personnel have interviewed numerous business and home owners in the area. They have found no evidence of underground tanks, according to the Web site. At MDE's request, EPA began the remediation effort last spring.

"There is discernible odor, and we could see evidence on the creek," Fitzsimmons said. "When any oil product impacts surface water, we are required to respond. But there is no major threat. People should not be alarmed. It is just something that we need to address."

Since the dam was installed, investigators have been trying to find the source of the leak. The agency has no plans to excavate the soil, Fitzsimmons said.

"We will allow the site to drain and let nature take its course," he said. "At this point, there is no reason to remediate soil. It will cleanse itself over time."

It will probably be late spring before the work is completed at a cost that could exceed $150,000, Fitzsimmons said. If it is a leaking tank, the owner of the property where it is located could be assessed for the damages, he said.

The EMA property borders a refuse and septic company on Obrecht Road. Ball fields used by Little League teams are nearby, as are several homes.

"No drinking water is impacted or threatened," Fitzsimmons said. "People would know, if there was a problem with wells. We have had no complaints about well water."

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