Press Statement: Groups Warn Maryland’s Conowingo Dam Settlement Will Harm Chesapeake Bay

FERC permit is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to force Exelon to deal with sediment and pollution harming the Chesapeake Bay caused by hyrdro-electric dam

(Takoma Park, MD) Today, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, represented by Earthjustice, filed comments with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) lambasting a proposed settlement agreement between the State of Maryland and Exelon Corporation over Conowingo Dam. This agreement provides a sweetheart deal to Exelon, requiring them to clean up less than 1 percent of the nitrogen, sediment and phosphorus pollution from the dam.

In a complete reversal of Maryland’s position on Conowingo Dam for the last seven years, the state decided to waive all of their authority under the Clean Water Act, including waiving a previously issued Water Quality Certification, voluntarily giving up the state’s best leverage in the dam relicensing process in exchange for an inadequate monetary contribution over the next 50 years.

“We owe it to future generations to continue cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. In order to be successful, we have to stop this settlement,” said Betsy Nicholas, Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “This settlement sets a terrible national precedent of states’ waiving their authority under the Clean Water Act.”

The settlement has grossly insufficient funds to deal with the risks to the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay from the extreme weather events that will scour large amounts of sediment and nutrients trapped behind Conowingo Dam. In the water quality certification that Maryland tossed aside, it was estimated that $172 million dollars per year was necessary to make necessary reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollution. The proposed settlement requires less than 1 percent of these improvements, while also protecting Exelon from any Clean Water Act or other water quality laws for the next 50 years.

The Conowingo Dam was built in 1928, transforming a 14-mile section of the Susquehanna from a free-flowing river into a 9,000-acre reservoir. It has had tremendous effect on the Susquehanna River habitat — interfering with the migration of shad, herring, eel and other fish, harming the native shellfish population that naturally filtered the river’s water and profoundly changing the river’s ability to transport nutrients and sediment.

“In the settlement Maryland and Exelon executed behind closed doors, the issue of damaging sediment and nutrient scour was ignored once again,” said Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Ted Evgeniadis. “There is no mention of appropriation of funding for upstream water quality improvements. This settlement lets Exelon off the hook and ensures that taxpayers in Maryland and Pennsylvania will shoulder the full burden of dealing with the Susquehanna’s contribution to Chesapeake Bay pollution.”

The Susquehanna is the main source of fresh water to Chesapeake Bay and dealing with sediment and pollution it transports into the bay is a vital portion of the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay — and the Conowingo Dam is a huge contributor.

After decades of operation, the dam has trapped nearly 200 million tons of sediment, nutrients and other pollutants, nearly filling the reservoir and eliminating its capacity to trap sediment and pollution flowing down the river. Regularly, communities downstream from the dam are subjected to waves of debris and sediment released from the dam’s floodgates during periods of high flows.

Maryland issued a water quality certification for the dam in April 2018 containing special provisions for the relicensing of the dam. The certification required Exelon to reduce sentiment and nutrient pollution, improve conditions for aquatic life and increase debris management.

Exelon sued the state over the water quality certification, and, in October 2019, the state and company announced the proposed settlement agreement. Advocates decried the fact that the state announced Exelon had agreed to pay $200 million for environmental remediation with great fanfare — but noted that’s over the 50-year life of the permit.

The settlement also provides no enforcement mechanism for the public, giving only the state of Maryland the ability to hold Exelon accountable.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper are asking that FERC not relicense the Conowingo Dam until Maryland makes sure the dam’s owners do their part to clean up the pollution flowing through it. Waterkeepers Chesapeake also submitted a petition to FERC signed by over 660 people making the same request. In addition, over 400 people sent letters to Maryland’s Governor Hogan asking him to withdraw the settlement agreement and to start over with a new fair and transparent settlement process.

Read more about the proposed settlement in a fact sheet here. More information on Conowingo Dam at www.waterkeeperschesapeake.org/conowingo-dam.

CONTACTS

Betsy Nicholas, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, (202) 423-0504
Ted Evgeniadis, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, (609) 571-5278

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