The Proposed Conowingo Settlement – A Dam Dud

By Zack Kelleher, Sassafras Riverkeeper

The recently-announced agreement between the Maryland Department of the Environment and Exelon Corporation regarding the Conowingo Dam is a baby step in the right direction, but does not do enough to protect the Chesapeake Bay or Sassafras River. At a time when we need innovative, comprehensive solutions to major environmental threats, these two parties have instead elected for a feel-good deal that only requires Exelon to pay for 3% of what they need to contribute to adequately address the problem. Exelon is trying to get off with minimal investment, making this less of a deal and more of a steal.

There needs to be accountability across the board to prevent large amounts of trash, debris, and pollutants that are released from the Conowingo Dam into the Chesapeake Bay and Sassafras River. These tires were pulled from a large debris field in the Sassafras that forms every time the gates at Conowingo Dam are opened. Photo credit: Evan Moore

It’s undeniable that the sediment, trash, and debris at the dam are generated by our northern neighbors, New York and Pennsylvania, and not by the dam itself. We need to hold these states accountable for reducing their pollution as well. However, Exelon is the only entity that profits from the water flowing through the dam. No one should be allowed to profit from a public natural resource without having to contribute to the protection and restoration of that resource. It is inexcusable that Maryland watermen, boaters, homeowners, and taxpayers have to suffer the consequences of this trash and pollution flowing down the Susquehanna and are then expected to pay for the cleanup.

The Sassafras River is only 11 miles from the mouth of the Susquehanna, so we are one of the first areas to feel the effects every time the Conowingo flood gates are opened and trash, sediment, and other pollutants are allowed to flow free. There should not be tractor tires, 55 gallon drums with Pennsylvania addresses, or nurdles (pre-production industrial plastic pellets) washing up on our Sassafras shores, especially when Exelon has the opportunity to prevent them from entering the Bay, but instead balks.

The updated 401 Water Quality Certification for the dam called for Exelon to pay $127 million per year for the 50-year term to begin to address this problem. Now Exelon is trying to claim that $4 million a year, or about 3% of what is needed, is a monumental victory. It’s not. The deal was brokered behind closed doors exclusively between the Maryland Department of the Environment and Exelon, so the only thing that is monumental here is the lack of transparency and enforcement opportunity.

The final affront is that the meager amount Exelon is proposing to pay would go into the state’s Clean Water Fund, which can be raided and reallocated at any point by the governor or legislature for other purposes, so the money might not even be used to address the issue at hand.

None of this is to say that Conowingo or Exelon is the bad guy. For many years, until it reached the end of its effective lifespan, the dam was the most effective best management practice in the entire Bay and trapped tons of sediment and debris. But past success is no excuse for current complacency. Exelon prides itself on being innovative, sustainable, and groundbreaking, so any settlement that is reached should reflect those values in a tangible, enforceable manner that benefits the health of our waterways. Exelon needs to step up and contribute their fair share for meaningful change because Marylanders deserve a healthy Bay and a clean Sassafras River. A problem this big needs accountability at all levels.