Bay Journal: Exelon agrees to $200 million settlement for impact of Conowingo Dam

Exelon agrees to $200 million settlement for impact of Conowingo Dam, Bay Journal, Tim Wheeler & Jeremy Cox, October 30, 2019

The Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association and Waterkeepers Chesapeake had contended that the conditions originally imposed by the MDE didn’t go far enough to address the dam’s impacts.

Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis said the groups had appealed the state’s conditions with hopes of getting more done to address the buildup of sediment behind the dam, which they feared could have devastating impacts if flushed over the dam by major floods. They had asked that Exelon be required to excavate at least 4 million cubic yards of sediment each year to reduce the buildup and offset the amount flowing through the dam each year.

But the agreement proposes just two projects that directly address that problem: a $500,000 study to determine options for managing dredged sediment and $250,000 annually to combat sediment scoured out from behind the dam during high flows. The state has separately launched a pilot project to dredge a small amount of sediment — 1,000 cubic yards — and test the feasibility of reusing it.

The two groups’ leaders welcomed the $25 million commitment to restoring eastern elliptio mussels in the Susquehanna. Once the river’s most common mussel, their numbers have dwindled since the dam was finished — a decline that’s believed to be linked to the inability of American eels to get upriver past the dam. The mussel larvae attach themselves to eels before dropping off and growing.

The mussels are prodigious filter feeders, noted Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, so their decline has hurt water quality.

“When you have a healthy mussel population, you have that filtration,” Nicholas said.

But Nicholas and Evgeniadis said they are concerned that many of the commitments in the settlement aren’t being written into the federal license and will only be enforced under the contract between the MDE and Exelon. Those actions include the $25 million mussel restoration project in the lower Susquehanna and $1 million toward eel passages and related research.

“We’d just like to lock down that uncertainty more,” she added, “and make sure the commitment to do these things actually happens.”

Grumbles said state officials hope that FERC will incorporate portions of the settlement into the dam’s operating license. But even if they don’t, he said, “we have an enforceable agreement with Exelon.”