CHESTERTOWN — The Clean Chesapeake Coalition wrote a letter earlier this month to congressional leaders opposing a bill that would allow the Conowingo Dam to be relicensed without consideration by the State of Maryland. The letter is signed by Ron Fithian, who is coalition president as well as a Kent County commissioner.
The North American Energy Security and Infrastructure Act of 2015, also known as House Resolution 8, states its purpose as “To modernize energy infrastructure, build a 21st century energy and manufacturing workforce, bolster America’s energy security and diplomacy, and promote energy efficiency and government accountability, and for other purposes.”
At the Dec. 1 Kent County Commissioners’ meeting, Fithian asked the commissioners to write their own letter to U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md-1st, stating their opposition to the bill.
HR 8 was passed by the House of Representatives Dec. 3, by a 249-174 margin. Harris, along with the Republican majority in the House, voted in favor of the bill. He was the only Maryland congressman to do so. It awaits consideration by the Senate.
The White House, in a statement of administration policy issued Dec. 1, is on record as opposing HR 8. The statement says the president’s advisers will recommend that he veto the bill if it is passed by the Senate.
Harris replied to the commissioners’ letter Monday, Dec. 7. He wrote, “In fact, your letter was delivered to my district office December 2, the day Congress began considering amendments to the bill.” He said he understood the commissioners’ opposition to the parts of the bill that would “undermine” efforts to use relicensing of the dam to address water quality in the Bay.
However, Harris wrote, “the bill is unlikely to have any effect on your efforts in the ‘real world,’” because the Senate is unlikely to pass it, and because the President would then need to sign it. Also, he said, the bill includes other provisions that are “national in scope,” addressing security of the electrical grid for emergencies, as a result of which he voted for its passage.
He asked the commissioners to give him “as much advance warning as possible” if the Conowingo Dam issue comes up again. “With more advance warning, I know we could have planned a more successful strategy on HR 8,” he wrote.
At the Dec. 14 commissioners meeting, where Harris’s letter was read, Fithian said, “So it’s my fault he didn’t know what was in the bill? I thought it was his job.”
Prior to the receipt of Harris’ letter, at the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting Dec. 8, Commissioner Bill Short said that Harris was wrong to vote for the bill. “Representatives for our area shouldn’t vote for a project removing authority from the state,” Short said.
Commissioner William Pickrum said Harris had taken “an unfortunate position.”
The coalition is made up of seven Maryland counties, including Kent County. Its mission, according to its website, is “to advocate, raise awareness and take action in order to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay in the most effective and fiscally responsible manner possible.” In pursuance of that objective, it has consistently drawn attention to the Conowingo Dam as a significant contributor to pollution in the Bay.
Specifically, the coalition cites the large volume of sediment trapped behind the dam as ”the single largest concentrated threat to the Chesapeake Bay and to downstream Bay restoration efforts.” According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Geological Survey, the sediment pool behind the dam is full, and the dam can no longer prevent nutrients and sediment from upstream from entering the Bay.
The coalition’s Dec. 1 letter says, “the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is doing very little compared to Maryland to reduce upstream pollution loading into the Susquehanna River; so the bay and our downstream restoration efforts and expenditures are in serious peril when the next big storm befalls the bay watershed.”
The amount of sediment behind the dam makes it difficult to reach the Total Maximum Daily Load goals set for the bay by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Fithian said at the county commissioners’ meeting Dec. 1. TMDL goals set the amount of any given pollutant that can measured for the EPA to rate the water quality as acceptable.
On a broader level, the CCC letter cites more than a century of public experience as evidence that hydroelectric dams interfere with fisheries. The letter says the Conowingo Dam has destroyed the shad fishery in the Bay, drastically reduced the oyster fishery to the north of the Bay Bridge, and devastated the blue crab fishery in the northern Bay.
Also, the letter states, HR 8 benefits private, for-profit power companies without giving local stakeholders a say in the use of their public waterways and strips states of the right to regulate water quality. The letter cites the local expertise of stakeholders as a key ingredient the act would discard.
As a consequence, the coalition states, the proposal to relicense the dam without giving Maryland counties a say in the process undercuts efforts to address water pollution and the other environmental problems caused by hydroelectric dams.
The Hydropower Reform Coalition, which advocates for restoration of rivers affected by hydroelectric dams to restore environment and recreational uses, says that more than 200 conservation groups have gone on record in opposition to HR 8. The group said on its website that HR 8 “would gut landmark environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and the Federal Power Act in hydropower licensing and permitting.”