Environmental Groups Intervene in Federal Proceeding over Conowingo Dam to Prevent Exelon from Shirking Bay Cleanup Responsibilities

In a new petition, Exelon is seeking to operate dam without state license, which groups say would create dangerous precedent

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, represented by Earthjustice, filed a motion to intervene in a federal agency proceeding between the State of Maryland and Exelon Corporation over the relicensing of the Conowingo Dam. Through a new petition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Exelon is seeking their 50-year license to operate the Conowingo without having to comply with the nutrient and sediment reductions called for by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) through the 401 Water Quality Certification (WQC) process; the groups are intervening to ensure this does not happen, which would create a dangerous precedent both in Maryland and across the country.

“Once again, Exelon is clearly attempting to avoid any responsibility for the cleanup related to Conowingo,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Exelon profits from operating the dam on the Susquehanna River, an important resource for so many people in our region. Their continued efforts to shirk responsibility for preventing pollution show they are not acting in the public’s interest.”

Exelon owns and operates the dam. In order to receive a new 50-year federal license for the dam, the State of Maryland must certify that the dam’s operations will not adversely impact water quality under the Clean Water Act.

In its petition, Exelon is relying on a recent decision in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, which found that state certification requirements can be waived if the state does not act upon the license request within one year. Because MDE did not issue its certification until 2018, after the original request for certification process began in 2014, Exelon is arguing that they do not have to comply with the requirements to help reduce pollution.

However, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper argue that this is a flawed interpretation of the Hoopa Valley decision, as the delay in issuing the certification was due to Exelon’s failure to provide sufficient information to MDE. They warn that efforts to clean up local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay would be seriously hampered if the courts rule in Exelon’s favor.

“There were several circumstances in the Hoopa Valley case that the court took into account which have absolutely no bearing in this case between Exelon and MDE,” said Ted Evgeniadis, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. “We are intervening in this proceeding to urge the federal government to do the right thing for clean water and for the public by ensuring Exelon does its fair share in preventing pollution.”

The Conowingo Dam was completed in 1928 and, since that time, it has been trapping sediment and nutrient pollution from the Susquehanna River and its 27,000-square-mile drainage area. Sediment is one of the three key pollutants, along with nitrogen and phosphorus, that is regulated under the federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, known as the TMDL.

Scientists have concluded that the reservoir behind the dam is now at capacity and cannot trap any more sediment. After large storms, powerful floodwaters can scoop out or “scour” the stored sediment behind the dam and send that downstream to the Chesapeake Bay in the form of pollution. Scientists say large storms and heavy rain events are happening more frequently due to climate change, which means the risk of a catastrophic storm continues to increase.

“Simply put, we will not meet our Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals if we do not address the pollution from Conowingo Dam,” added Nicholas. “If Exelon is allowed to continue operating the dam without doing its part to reduce pollution, the consequences for the Bay in the next 50 years could be catastrophic.”

Media Contact: Betsy Nicholas, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, 202-423-0504