Tuesday 23 April 2019

The Conowingo Dam, on the Susquehanna River, has held back sediment and other pollutants for decades, but recent research shows that the Dam reservoir has filled up with sediment and associated nutrients much faster than expected.

This enormous artificial repository can be scoured by high flow events, re-mobilized, and delivered downstream by one catastrophic-level storm (think Hurricane Agnes level). If mobilized and delivered downstream, this sediment can and will smother aquatic grasses that provide food, habitats and oxygen for marine life in the Chesapeake Bay. It’s not a matter of if a major, catastrophic-level storm will happen, but when.

Recently, the owner and operator of Conowingo Dam – Exelon Corporation – filed an application with the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) to re-license the Dam for another 46 years. Exelon is required to obtain a 401 Water Quality Certification from MDE, which is a requirement under the Clean Water Act that the Dam will continue to meet the State’s water quality standards. MDE has the opportunity to approve, deny or place “conditions” on the Dam’s license through this process. 

On December 5th, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper attended a hearing on this re-licensing and recommended that MDE place conditions on the Dam’s license to ensure that Exelon plays a role in the cleanup efforts around the Dam. Without these necessary conditions, MDE must deny the application outright due to its major deficiencies.

Conowingo Dam is a ticking time bomb that requires some major cleanup efforts. The state must address two separate problems - the sediment that is trapped in the Dam’s reservoir and the sediment now flowing through the Dam due to the Dam’s inability to trap any more sediment. This will require dredging the trapped sediment, a suite of upstream best management practices to minimize the sediment flowing through the dam, and resiliency measures downstream to ameliorate the effects of a sediment scour event – like a major storm. 

We recommend that MDE require a myriad of cleanup actions as a condition on the license in order to address the complex problem that is Conowingo Dam. One type of cleanup effort alone will not be enough. For instance, while best management practices (BMPs) upstream can and should be a part of the cleanup efforts, previous studies have shown that if every single upstream BMP were instituted, they would only address about 15-20% of the sediment flow coming downstream and through the dam. Unfortunately, these practices would also do nothing to ameliorate the risk of the trapped sediment behind the Dam from releasing during a catastrophic storm. 

There is an obligation, not only under the state’s 401 Water Quality Certification, but under the Federal Power Act to address water quality improvements and ensure public benefits, like access and public recreation, which will be impacted if not addressed through this license. 

Over the next 46 years, Exelon will bring in billions in revenue for the operation of this Dam, and the Federal Power Act requires a public benefit for using the public resource of the Susquehanna River. Exelon may not continue to profit from this public resource without remediating all of the environmental problems the Dam has created.

If Maryland doesn’t deal with the trapped sediment behind the dam, all of our efforts to clean up the bay and meet the state’s 2025 Total Maximum Daily Load (TDML) goals will be devastated by one major storm. Maryland cannot wait to start these cleanup efforts – Maryland must partner with Exelon and other stakeholders and start the process now.

Ask MDE to ensure that Exelon plays a role in waterway cleanup efforts during the re-licensing of Conowingo Dam. We can’t wait another 46 years before taking action! 

The public has until January 15, 2018 to submit written comments to MDE on the re-licensing of Conowingo Dam.


Waterkeepers Chesapeake & Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Comments Conowingo Dam 401 water quality certificate application, Sept. 2017

FlowWest LSRWA Modeling Review Final Report, August 2017


EPA Guidance Falls Short of Protecting Communities

Air Releases of Hazardous Substances from Animal Waste Will Continue

Sometimes our job as Waterkeepers can get very wonky. And this is one of those times. Not only do we comment on and challenge flawed regulations, we also slog through the guidance documents that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) drafts about how these regulations should be interpreted and applied. Last month, the EPA released a Guidance regarding a new requirement that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFO) – known as factory farms -- report the release of hazardous substances from their facilities.

This Guidance came a few months after the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that CAFOs are not exempt from the reporting requirements under Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). The decision was meant to close a EPA loophole that has long exempted CAFOs from reporting the same hazardous substances – like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide – as other industries.

The Court reasoned that public health professionals and emergency responders would need this information to adequately respond to emergencies and community threats. Under the ruling, a CAFO owner or operator must notify federal authorities under CERCLA and state and local authorities under EPCRA after it releases a large amount of ammonia or hydrogen sulfide.

The EPA estimates that nearly three-quarters of the country’s ammonia emissions come from CAFOs. According to the Government Accountability Office, the amount of manure from CAFOs ranges from 2,800 tons to 1.6 million tons a year. The manure ends up emitting high quantities of ammonia, hydrogen sulfide, volatile methane and particulate matter after it’s stored or applied to cropland, where it either decomposes or undergoes nitrification and de-nitrification. The ventilation systems in CAFOs also release harmful levels of ammonia emissions. For instance, a study conducted by Iowa State University found that two chicken houses in Kentucky emitted over 10 tons of ammonia in one year.

Ammonia air pollution is associated with some serious health effects, including throat irritation; chemical burns to the respiratory tract, skin and eyes; chronic lung disease; and increased mortality rates.

Despite this, EPA’s Guidance exempts more than ninety percent of the largest CAFOs across the United States from reporting. The EPA justified exempting these CAFOs because they are under a 2005 Animal Feeding Operation Air Compliance Agreement. These compliance agreements were set up so the EPA could develop a reliable way to estimate emissions from CAFOs and determine whether they comply with Clean Air Act standards, but a recent report from the EPA’s Office of the Inspector found that the agency has not been able to make much progress – even after 11 years.

Another glaring issue with EPA’s Guidance is that all farms are virtually excluded from reporting hazardous emissions to state and local authorities. Under the Guidance, any farm that uses manure as part of its “routine agricultural operations” is exempted from the reporting requirements under EPCRA §304. EPA stated that it “believes Congress did not intend to impose EPCRA reporting requirements on farms engaged in routine agricultural operations.”

The “continuous release” reporting required under CERCLA §103 allows for too much uncertainty as it allows for CAFOs to report in “broad ranges” to federal authorities and only requires CAFOs to review their emissions annually.

EPA’s Guidance also falls short of informing CAFO operators and owners on how they should estimate the amount of hazardous substances emitted by their facilities. Despite acknowledging the difficulty in measuring these emissions, EPA does not require any monitoring and allows operators and owners to use their “best professional judgment.”

While this Guidance was meant to educate CAFO owners and operators on how to comply with the recent decision from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, it largely circumvents the Court’s impetus for requiring CAFOs to report hazardous emissions in the first place – to protect communities and provide much needed information for local authorities and emergency responders.

The Guidance and reporting requirements will go into effect on November 15th, but the EPA has requested a stay until January 17th, which the Court has yet to rule on.

Read our detailed comments on the Guidance.

[Aerial photos of chicken CAFOs by Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips.]

Dec. 4th Public Meeting & Rally on Coal Ash Disposal in Virginia

Back in April, Governor McAuliffe put the brakes on issuing coal ash solid waste permits to Dominion for at least a year so the toxic coal ash threats posed at their facilities can be assessed and the full range of disposal solutions explored, including recycling. This assessment will be presented to the State Water Commission on December 4th.

Please join us Dec. 4th from 10:00 – noon to hear the results of this finding. The meeting will be located in Virginia State Capitol, House Room 1, 1000 Bank Street, Richmond, Virginia. Remember to bring a state issued ID to gain entry into the Virginia State Capitol.

Immediately following the meeting there will be a press event and a Dominion: Move Your Ash rally. RSVP today to receive updates. We need to tell Dominion and Virginia loud and clear that they can’t bury toxic coal ash in leaky ponds at their power plants!


Water is Life Rally & Concert to Stop Atlantic Coast Pipeline on Dec. 2nd

This rally and concert will focus attention on the Virginia Water Control Board hearings coming up in Richmond on December 6, 7, 11 & 12 to decide whether or not to grant water quality certifications for the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipelines. The Rally & Concert on Dec. 2nd and the public hearings represent the last political chance in Virginia to stop these fracked gas pipelines. Help surround Capitol Grounds from 1-2pm to send a strong message to our public officials. Then join for food, fun, and music at The National.

WHEN: Saturday, 12/2 from 1-4:30pm

WHERE: 1:00 pm at Capitol Grounds in Richmond and 2:00 pm at The National.


Public Hearing on Water Permit for Atlantic Coast Pipeline on Dec. 11 - 12

The Virginia State Water Control Board will hold hearings to consider the application for water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The consideration is part of the process required under Section 401 of the federal Clean Water Act.

The meetings are scheduled for: 9:30am, Monday, Dec. 11 and Tuesday, Dec. 12 at Trinity Family Life Center, 3601 Dill Road, Richmond, VA.

The Water Control Board is the last hurdle Dominion faces in Virginia, and our last hope to block it before heading to federal court.

Help us send a message to the Board and Governor McAuliffe – come out to the hearings on December 11 & 12 and demand they put Virginians and our environment ahead of national politics and Dominion influence-peddling. Check our Facebook page for updates.

Public Meeting on Water Permit for Potomac Pipeline Dec. 19th

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) is holding a public meeting on TransCanada’s proposed fracked gas pipeline that would tunnel under the Potomac River.

The hearing is Tuesday, Dec. 19th, 6:00 – 9:30 pm at Hancock Middle/High School, 289 West Main Street, Hancock MD 21750.

At this meeting, MDE will hear from Marylanders to inform their decision about whether to approve or deny the 401 Water Quality Certification under the Clean Water Act. Denying the 401 permit would stop the construction of this pipeline in its tracks, and is the best way for Governor Hogan and MDE to protect our drinking water!

Join us on Dec. 19th to stand united in saying NO to the Potomac Pipeline. This is a critical moment to stop the Potomac Pipeline, show up and speak up!

Details about how to prepare your testimony to come. If you can’t join us on December 19th, stay tuned for instructions to submit written testimony through January 16th.



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