State Leaders Tour Conowingo Dam, Admit Dam is Half of Bay Pollution but Cecil County Still on Hook for Cleanup Costs
State Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford/Cecil) peered out the window of a mini-bus crossing the Conowingo Dam Thursday and exclaimed, âwhereâs all the usual debrisâthey must have scooped it upâŚdid they know we were coming?â
But the real problem with the dam is invisible and far below the surface of the Susquehanna River: tons of backed-up sediment that is released into the Chesapeake Bay when floodgates are opened, especially during storms. Jacobs, along with Cecil County officials, took top state environmental regulators on a bus trip to make their point that the privately-owned dam is a major source of pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.
And that multi-state problem must be cleaned up first, they argued, before downstream counties in Maryland are forced to spend millions on state-mandated pollution fixes.
While conceding that the Susquehannaâwhich originates in New York and flows through Pennsylvania before reaching Marylandâis responsible for at least half of the pollutants entering the Bay, the state officials were un-moved.
âItâs not just about the Bay,â said Robert Summers, Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. Streams, reservoirs and âthe future of our drinking water in the stateâ all require additional steps to curb pollution from stormwater runoff, septic systems, sewage treatment plants, and agriculture. And all those other sources of pollution also contribute to half of the Bayâs problems, he said.
After the dam tour, local officials met at the Donaldson Brown conference center near Port Deposit to discuss the issues with members of the governorâs âBay cabinet,â consisting of top officials of several state agencies overseeing programs involving the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Attending the meeting were the Secretaries of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), Department of Agriculture, and the Maryland Department of Planning. But Summers, the MDE secretary, took the lead and did most of the talking and responding to questions and concerns from local officials.
Cecil County officials also raised questions about a federally-owned dumpsite in Earleville, and how state environmental officials are handling a request to resume dumping even though the site has contaminated local residents’ drinking water. But Summers, whose agency is in charge of a state review of the dumpsite plan, eventually conceded he was not up to speed on the important local issue.
Meanwhile, Cecil County is already trying to cope with potentially mammoth costs of the stateâs Bay cleanup program that mandates Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP) for each county to develop steps to comply with required reduced levels of pollutants. Cecil Countyâs tab is estimated at $600 million by 2020, the deadline for compliance.
And the new Fiscal 2014 Cecil County capital improvement budget included $620,000 for implementation of stormwater management permit procedures and retrofitting of stormwater management facilitiesâjust a small step on a long and costly path to compliance.
Cecil County has joined a coalition with several other counties, mostly on the Eastern Shore, that have hired a lawyer and are challenging the state mandates. Central to their challenge is the sediment build-up behind the Conowingo Dam, and the stateâs failure to address that key issue before tightening the WIPâs fiscal noose on the counties.
Charles âChipâ MacLeod, a Chestertown lawyer who is leading the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, made a lengthy presentation during the meeting, and conducted a debate with Summers under blazing sunshine when the bus tour stopped in a waterfront park on the Harford County side of the Susquehanna.
âThis should be priority one,â MacLeod said of removing the sediments backed up behind the Conowingo Dam. With charts and graphics, he documented how pollutants released through the dam in past storms had created massive âplumesâ of pollution that no amount of local countiesâ costly WIPs could reduce.
But Summers said a key pollutant of the Bayânitrogenâflows freely through water moving through the dam and removing the backed-up sediments would do nothing to resolve that issue. So down-stream efforts to remove nitrogenâsuch as sewage and septic restrictions– must continue, he added.
The Conowingo Dam, owned by the Exelon power utility, is up for re-licensing by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) next year and the Coalition is focusing attention on the sediment/pollution problem that its members believe should be addressed as a condition of any new license. Summers said Maryland is looking to raise that issue in the FERC proceedings, but a key problem is that âno one is responsibleâ for the sediments, since they come from waterways in several states, and it is unclear who would be responsible for potentially mammoth clean-up costs.
DNR Deputy Secretary Frank Dawson said that âExelon is certainly aware that sediment is our top issueâ in the re-licensing of the dam. Maryland is co-operating with a US Army Corps of Engineers study of the sediment problem that is not due to be released until 2014, but DNR officials said they are trying to âexpediteâ the study so that its findings could be used in the FERC case as a possible âconditionâ attached to any new license.
Toward the end of the meeting,County Council President Robert Hodge (R-5) raised the issue of the Pearce Creek dumpsite in Earleville, where the US Army Corps of Engineers wants to resume dumping of shipping channel dredge spoils. (A US Geological Survey study released in January concluded that the Corps dumpsite off Pond Neck Road was responsible for continued pollution of area homesâ drinking water wells, despite the fact that new dumping stopped 20 years ago.)
âWhat parameters and criteria is your department going to use before you sign offâ on renewed dumping at the site, Hodge asked. MDE has the power to decide whether dumping can resume because a state water quality certification is required.
âWe have not allowed it to be used until we get a solution there,â Summers said of the Earleville site and the agencyâs past concerns that led to the cessation of dumping two decades ago. He said MDEâs goal now would be to âprevent pollution in the futureâ and to âfix the problemâ caused by past dumping.
âWe want the contamination stopped,â Summers said, âbut we donât have a specific fix.â
County Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) questioned a Corps proposal to install a liner over part of the dumpsite, saying there was no provision for a âleak detection systemâ to show if the liner had been breached, which could let contaminants again leak into the aquifers. The Corps wants to deposit new dredge spoils on top of a liner that would be placed over an area of the dumpsite that has a geologic âholeâ that allowed pollutants to get into aquifers for many years.
âWe havenât worked out the details,â Summers said, noting that Corps officials had recently met with MDE staff to begin discussions of various proposals. But he said that landfills usually are required to have some sort of monitoring provisions.
In his comments to the local officials, Summers did not mention local residentsâ drinking water contamination and whether providing them with safe, clean water would be mandated by MDE before the Corps could resume dumping. So far MDE has played no public role in discussions involving the Corps, the Maryland Port Administration and local officials on how to ensure that the Earleville residentsâ water supplies are remediated.
After the meeting, Summers told Cecil Times that âprivate drinking water wells are the responsibility, in general, of the property ownersâ and that arsenic and other pollutants found in some Earleville wells near the dump are often ânaturally occurring substancesâ in Maryland soils. But âwhere thereâs a responsible party,â he said, âweâre going to be making sure itâs taken care of as part of the solution.â
Advised that the USGS study had placed the blame for local aquifer pollution firmly on the Corps dumpsite, Summers conceded that he was not fully up to speed on the Pearce Creek issue and had spoken at the meeting on the basis of notes provided by staff.
MacLeod, of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, said there was a direct link between the Susquehanna Dam issue and the Pearce Creek dumpsite, saying that removing the sediments backed up behind the dam would mean there would be much less sediment downriver to remove from southern Cecil County area shipping channelsâwith the result there would be less need to deposit spoils in nearby Earleville.
The meeting was convened by County Executive Tari Moore and with one exception, all members of the Cecil County Councilâincluding Hodge, Broomell, Councilors Alan McCarthy (R-1) and Joyce Bowlsbey (R-2)– attended the discussion with the Bay cabinet. Absent as usual was Councilor Michael Dunn (R-3).
Also attending were state Del. David Rudolph (D-Cecil); Elkton Mayor Joe Fisona; Port Deposit Mayor Wayne Tome; Dick Sossi, district representative for US Rep. Andy Harris (R-1); and senior staff aides for Cecil County, the town of Perryville and Harford County.