Monday 19 November 2018

Baltimore City hearing is second of three challenges to Maryland’s Department of the Environment permitting of stormwater runoff -- the primary source of contaminants polluting Baltimore waterways


BALTIMORE, MD  –  This morning, a coalition of environmental and local watershed advocates legally challenged the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to improve the permits that govern urban storm sewer systems. Today’s Baltimore City Circuit Court hearing is the second of three separate challenges to MDE’s permitting program for stormwater runoff. 

In the DC and Baltimore regions, urban stormwater runoff is documented as the number one source of contaminants polluting rivers, creeks and streams, many of which ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay. MDE is the department authorized to oversee Maryland’s program to reduce pollution from this runoff. The coalition asserts that MDE is issuing permits that are unenforceable and ineffective. Their challenge rests on four main arguments: 

  • MDE’s refusal to impose enforceable limits in the permits,
  • Lack of public participation process in setting deadlines and limits,
  • Inadequate monitoring and absence of compliance timetables; and
  • Inadequate requirements for the elimination of non-stormwater pollution discharges 

General statement from the coalition:

 “MDE continues to waste millions of Maryland taxpayer dollars on ineffective and unenforceable permitting programs that fail to protect our beloved waterways and the nationally treasured Chesapeake Bay. These challenges simply seek to increase accountability and the public participation process so desperately needed to protect the waters in which we swim, fish, boat and enjoy.”

Statement from Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake:

“Urban and suburban stormwater pollution remain one of the greatest threats to the health of Maryland’s neighborhood streams as well as the Chesapeake Bay.  Our communities are at risk from this polluted runoff and it is MDE’s responsibility to protect the waters that we drink, fish and swim in by imposing specific requirements to reduce discharges of harmful nutrients, sediment and bacteria.  We need enforceable limits and compliance deadlines to get the job done. ”

Statement from David Flores, Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper:

 “Some of our neighborhood streams and rivers pose a threat to public health and safety, because these stormwater systems continuously discharge raw sewage, toxic metals, and other hazardous pollution. There are effective ways to control the source of this pollution, and MDE has the authority and know-how to implement them. We urge MDE to take this opportunity by putting forth meaningful protections instead of allowing the pollution of our cherished waters to continue indefinitely.”

Supported by Earthjustice, a non-profit public interest environmental law firm, the petitioners are groups who work to protect and conserve waterways that flow throughout Maryland, including: Anacostia Riverkeeper, Anacostia Watershed Society, Blue Water Baltimore/Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper, Gunpowder Riverkeeper, Mattawoman Watershed Society, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Patuxent Riverkeeper, Potomac Riverkeeper, Sierra Club and Waterkeepers Chesapeake.

The third legal challenge is scheduled for Baltimore County on September 24th.  The judge’s decision from the initial challenge held July 11th in Prince George’s County is forthcoming.


Khushi Desai | Earthjustice | 202.745.5224 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
David Flores | Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper | 443.908.0696 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.          

Betsy Nicholas | Waterkeepers  Chesapeake| 202.423.0504 | This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 


Watch Baltimore Harbor Waterkeeper's video of Aug 12, 2014 sewer overflows in Baltimore


October 10, 2014 Update: New website launched to get the facts: 

Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael Helfrich at Conowingo DamConowingo Dam is a large hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River, near the Maryland/Pennsylvania Border. The drainage area behind the dam is more than 27,000 square miles and extends to Cooperstown, New York.  Conowingo Dam is owned and operated for profit by Exelon Corporation.

Exelon's current license for the Conowingo was issued on August 14, 1980 and expires in September 2014. They have applied for a new 46-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).  They have also asked the State of Maryland to approve the license application (by issuing a Section 401 Water Quality Certification under the Clean Water Act).  This decision will affect the Chesapeake Bay for generations to come.

Conowingo vs. Local Water Quality

Some in Maryland are pointing to Conowingo as an excuse not to implement local measures to reduce stormwater pollution. Their reasoning goes something like this: “If the Susquehanna River is putting so much pollution into the Bay, whatever we do locally won’t make a difference.” That is simply untrue. While flow from the Susquehanna certainly is a major driver of water quality in the main stem of the Bay, local impacts are far more important to most rivers, creeks, and streams. Polluted stormwater runoff from developed areas and farm fields, failing septic systems, and other local sources contaminate our rivers, creeks, and streams throughout Maryland, resulting in toxic algae blooms, high bacteria leveals, and water contacts advisories.

Let’s not use Conowingo as an excuse – let’s use it as an opportunity. We now have a chance to act with the FERC relicensing process that won’t come around again for 46 years. If we can require Exelon to remove at least some of the sediment from behind Conowingo, and reduce the threat of a catastrophic event, we can enhance and secure our local efforts to reduce pollution and improve water quality. Addressing all sources of pollution is the only way we can make true progress in our fight for clean water.

Conowingo and Sediment

Over the course of its life, the Conowingo Dam has trapped nearly 200 million tons of sediment, nutrients and other pollutants behind it. This sediment consists of 85 years worth of upstream runoff from the Susquehanna River watershed, including everything from farm fields and construction sites to residential lands. The ability of the dam to store any more sediment is almost at capacity – it’s just about full.  What happens then?

When the dam can no longer store sediment, it will simply continue down the river and into the Bay. More importantly, during a tropical storm or other large rain event, the raging river flow over the dam can scour the sediment stored behind the dam. This can, as in 1972 with Hurricane Agnes, deliver a catastrophic amount of sediment to the Bay – far more than there would be in a big storm if the dam was not there. When too much sediment enters the Bay, it clouds the water, and impacts natural resources like oysters and underwater grasses. The nutrient pollution that accompanies the sediment will cause algae blooms and dead zones.

To adequately protect the health of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland agencies and other scientists need more information to assess the impact of the sediment behind the dam.  A recent study by the Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment left several unanswered questions. While scientists are conducting additional monitoring and modeling, some experts question whether this will provide sufficient information to allow Maryland to reliably protect the Bay during the largest storm events.

Provisions in the federal Clean Water Act give the state of Maryland a once-in-a-generation opportunity to require Exelon to meet state water quality standards.  If the scouring of sediment and nutrients from behind Conowingo Dam impairs water quality and causes damage to the Bay’s habitat and living resources, Exelon is responsible for fixing the problem.

Other Impacts

Conowingo Dam also severely impacts migratory fish species such as American shad and eel.  The construction of two fish lifts and previous programs to capture and truck fish above the dam have done little to address the mortality rates and migration problems.

There are also a host of other concerns to address in the re-licensing ranging from recreational areas and facilities, to boating safety, to optimal flow regimes for aquatic life.

Opportunities To Get Involved

On July 30, 2014, FERC issued the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for public comment. The purpose of the EIS is to assess the environmental and economic effects of continuing facility operations and (should) make recommendations for reducing negative impacts.  The EIS currently reflects virtually none of the recommended measures by Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, intervenors in the relicensing proceeding, that were included in our previous comments to FERC.  Comments are due on the EIS by September 29, 2014, and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers Chesapeake will be submitting comments.

Often, one of the most significant steps in the FERC relicensing process is the Section 401 water quality certification that Exelon must receive from Maryland. This section of the Clean Water Act allows affected states to evaluate the potential for dams to impact downstream waters and insert conditions in the FERC permit to protect those waters.  Maryland is currently requesting further information and study from Exelon prior to issuing the certification.  When issued, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Waterkeepers Chesapeake will comment on the water quality certification. 

CLICK HERE for August 22, 2014, MPTV interview with Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael Helfrich


No more delay: Protect our communities from manure pollution

The Maryland Department of Agriculture and Governor O'Malley’s administration bowed to pressure from the agriculture lobby and chose delay over protecting our families and communities from the harmful pollution that is choking our waterways. On Friday, November 15, the administration withdrew its proposed regulations to implement the new Maryland Phosphorus Management Tool, designed to reduce phosphorus pollution caused by excessive application of manure. This marks the third delay in the implementation of these critical regulations, while the problems from phosphorus pollution in our waterways continue to grow.

Phosphorus pollution causes algae blooms that kill underwater grasses, threaten human health, harm aquatic life like blue crabs, oysters and fish, and create an enormous “dead zone” in the Bay. Runoff from manure may also include harmful bacteria and dangerous pharmaceuticals.

The agriculture industry keeps pushing for further delays, which will ultimately make meeting their state and federal requirements to reduce pollution more difficult and more expensive. Many Maryland farm fields with a history of manure (and biosludge) application have phosphorus levels that far exceed what is needed for successful crop growth. Fields with high phosphorus levels can pollute nearby waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Delaying implementation of this tool will result in excessive levels of phosphorus continuing to be applied to the fields and continuing to pollute nearby streams and waterways. The longer we wait to implement the tool – the more polluted the fields and streams will be.

Marylanders depend on clean water for the health of their families and the health of our overall economy. Waterkeepers Chesapeake supports the timely implementation of the Phosphorus Management Tool, which the state has committed to doing in its Watershed Implementation Plan. We have joined other organizations from the Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition in calling for Governor O’Malley and legislative leaders to honor their previous commitments. In a letter sent on behalf of these groups on November 22, we write:

According to BayStat, agriculture is the single largest source of pollution to the Bay with more than half of the phosphorus pollution in Maryland coming from farms. How much more delay will occur before we tackle the ongoing problem of dumping excess manure on farm fields that leak phosphorus pollution into our waters?

The Phosphorus Management Tool offers a valuable method to help keep harmful pollution from being applied to the land, entering our streams and ultimately hurting our communities.