Conowingo Dam

Surrounded by members of his administration, Gov. Larry Hogan holds a news conference at Conowingo Dam last summer. At right is Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. Next to him is Department of Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton.

BALTIMORE — The Clean Chesapeake Coalition and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are heralding Gov. Larry Hogan for requiring Exelon Generation Co. to cut down water pollution from the Conowingo Dam as part of the company’s relicensing efforts.

Exelon is in the process of renewing its license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate Conowingo Dam, located on the Susquehanna River at the top of the Bay, for 50 years. As part of that effort, the company must obtain the water quality certification from the state.

As the Environmental Protection Agency has called for all states in the Chesapeake watershed to help clean up the Bay, Hogan and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition have led the fight to hold Exelon accountable for the nutrient and sediment pollution that flows through Conowingo Dam.

In a news release, Hogan said the state has taken bold and decisive action to clean up the Bay. He said all that progress may be threatened though if there is not a coordinated effort by other states to reduce pollution in the Susquehanna River.

“From the beginning of our administration we have sounded the warning on the problems caused by the Conowingo Dam. This certification provides a strong framework for working with the upstream states and private partners such as Exelon to take real actions to address the sediment and nutrient pollution problems caused by the dam so we can preserve the Bay for future generations,” Hogan said in a statement.

In a news release Friday, Exelon said it is reviewing the water quality certification and evaluating “the next steps to determine the long-term viability of the Conowingo Dam.”

According to the MDE certification, Conowingo Dam initially improved water quality in the Bay by trapping nutrient-laden sediment. The dam’s reservoir has reportedly reached capacity, though, in part because no routine dredging or other mitigation efforts were undertaken over the course of the dam’s life.

“As a result, sediments and nutrients move downstream, and during large storm events, significant amounts of trapped sediment and nutrients are scoured from behind the Dam and discharged downstream. By releasing significant amounts of sediment and nutrients through scouring during storm events, the Dam has alerted the nature, timing, and delivery method of these materials with adverse consequences for the Lower River and the Bay,” the 59-page water quality certification states.

In a statement, Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles said the water quality certification is part of a “holistic approach” to meet Bay restoration goals.

“The stringent environmental conditions in the certification are at the heart of a comprehensive strategy to speed up the cleanup of the Bay and hold our partners accountable for doing their part to create a healthier watershed. This water quality certification, based on sound science and law, includes responsible and necessary conditions for pollution prevention and continued progress for the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay,” Grumbles said.

Exelon said Conowingo Dam has been a reliable source of energy for 90 years. The company said the dam accounts for 55 percent of the renewable energy in Maryland.

“In order to assess the impacts to the Chesapeake Bay, it is important to understand the science, which clearly shows the flow of pollutants down the Susquehanna River, from New York and Pennsylvania, and into the Bay. At the same time, it is important to understand that the Conowingo Dam does not produce any pollution itself,” the Exelon release states.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition comprises the local governments of Caroline, Carroll, Cecil, Dorchester, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, with Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian as chairman. As the federal government and the state called for increased efforts to clean up the Bay, the coalition has been raising awareness on the issues at Conowingo Dam.

In a statement Monday, Fithian called the water quality certification a “watershed moment in the history of Chesapeake Bay restoration.”

“For nearly 6 years our Coalition has been shining a spotlight on the Conowingo factor and insisting that the multi-state Bay cleanup agenda was flawed for ignoring the elephant in the room. Thanks to the leadership of Governor Hogan and MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles, we finally have a plan to begin addressing the enormous threats posed by the operation of Conowingo Dam on the ecology of the Bay and on our downstream efforts and expenditures to improve water quality,” Fithian said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation joined the fight to clean up Conowingo Dam in 2013, when it filed a petition to intervene with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s relicensing process for Exelon.

In a statement Friday, acting Chesapeake Bay Foundation Vice President Alison Prost said Conowingo Dam currently releases too much water at once, harming fish habitat downstream. She thanked Hogan and the MDE, saying the foundation is satisfied with the cleanup requirements in the water quality certification.

“Strict conditions are necessary for a 50-year operating license. Those set by Maryland are justified for protecting the health of the Chesapeake. The certification ensures a cleaner Bay, but gives Exelon clearly defined options for fulfilling its clean-up responsibilities,” Prost said in a statement. “These strict conditions for the dam’s future operations are the result of a decade of study and collaboration by scientists, non-profit organizations, and government agencies.”

In its release, the Clean Chesapeake Coalition called the Susquehanna River “the single largest source of pollution loading” to the Bay. The coalition said that as a result, Conowingo Dam is a significant point source of sediment and nutrient pollution into the Bay.

“Since Hurricane Agnes in 1972, the devastating impacts on the Bay from the accumulated nutrients and sediments above the Conowingo Dam when coupled with the forces of Mother Nature have been well-known, well-documented and thoroughly studied,” the coalition news release states.

Exelon said it will continue to work with government officials and environmental organizations to find a comprehensive and long-term solution, citing its water quality certification application as an important first step.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition said it wants to work with Exelon, rather than take its concerns to the courts.

“We want to collaborate, not litigate. With Maryland’s conditional permit for Conowingo relicensing and a Conowingo specific watershed implementation plan to be developed under the auspices EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program, the stage has been set for regionally addressing one the Bay’s most vexing threats. We look forward to discussing short and long-term strategies, including dredging, that reduce pollution loading into the Chesapeake Bay and that make fiscal and scientific sense,” the coalition stated.

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