River’s White Sludge Not Likely From Dumping

SNOW HILL – A mysterious white sludge found in a culvert near the Pocomoke River in the southern end of Worcester County was not dumped there, county staff concluded last week, but may have occurred naturally.

The white material not only was not dumped at the site, it turns out that the sludge is not petroleum based, as first assumed.

The substance has a biological origin, according to the investigating scientists, but beyond that, the stuff is still unidentified.

State scientists compared the material to 80,000 different samples and came up empty-handed, said Bob Mitchell, director of Worcester County’s environmental programs. The material resembles nothing on file.

“It wasn’t a hazardous material or an oil spill,” Mitchell said. “It just seems so implausible. This thing looked like grease.”

Mitchell concluded, before the testing got underway, that the substance was a non-petroleum oil-based product, and the investigation even identified possible dumpers. Those leads came to nothing, however, and then scientists concluded that the material was biological, possibly related to tree fungi or algae.

The stuff is not animal-based, Mitchell said.            “It looked like a fat spill. It wasn’t a foam. It was pretty solid,” he said.

While the material looked like grease, and lay on top of water like a grease, it did not behave like a grease when scientists boiled it.

The apparent dumpsite near Hickory Rd., 500 feet from the Pocomoke River, came to light on Dec. 11 when a nearby property owner reported the white substance in a culvert between the Pocomoke River Swamp and the Pocomoke River, in the far southern end of Worcester County.

The material prompted county and state authorities to begin an investigation into what was believed to be illegal dumping of a chemical or other material that does not belong in nature, surveying adjacent properties for tire tracks and questioning neighbors.

As recently as Tuesday, Dec. 18, Mitchell reported to the County Commissioners, saying that his department and the state were looking into illegal dumping at the site.

“At this time we don’t have a definitive source,” Mitchell told the commissioners last Tuesday. “We have a couple of leads we’re following.”

Commissioner Bobby Cowger said he had received several calls from concerned citizens about the apparent deliberate dumping.

“We’re very concerned about it and I’m hoping the state is also,” Commissioner Judy Boggs said.

Dumpers face jail time if caught and convicted, not just a fine.

Just a few days later, theories about the origin and composition of the white material fell apart.

“I thought we had it dead to rights. I though we had the source but it didn’t pan out,” Mitchell said.

In this case, it turns out that no human action was involved in leaving the white substance in the culvert, but there the information stops. No one knows what the biological sludge is made of or where it came from.

Mitchell speculated that a temperature inversion might have kicked up something from the bottom layers of the swamp, a result of changing temperatures in the fall and spring. Temperatures started to drop around Dec. 11, Mitchell recalled. While this is known to happen, no one seems to remember a temperature inversion resulting in white sludge like that discovered in Worcester County.

“It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Mitchell.

The sludge has since started to break up naturally.

“This is almost a CSI-type thing,” Mitchell said, referring to the popular forensic science television drama. “We may just have to close this thing and keep it on file.”