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State Leaders Tour Conowingo Dam, Admit Dam is Half of Bay Pollution but Cecil County Still on Hook for Cleanup Costs

May 31, 2013
By Nancy Schwerzler

State Sen. Nancy Jacobs (R-Harford/Cecil) peered out the window of a mini-bus crossing the Conowingo Dam Thursday and exclaimed, “where’s all the usual debris—they must have scooped it up…did they know we were coming?”

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 Susquehanna—which originates in New York and flows through Pennsylvania before reaching Maryland—is responsible for at least half of the pollutants entering the Bay, the state officials were un-moved.

“It’s not just about the Bay,” said Robert Summers, Secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment. Streams, reservoirs and “the future of our drinking water in the state” 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 Bay’s 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 governor’s “Bay cabinet,” 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 state’s Bay cleanup program that mandates Watershed Implementation Plans (WIP) for each county to develop steps to comply with required reduced levels of pollutants. Cecil County’s 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 facilities—just 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 state’s failure to address that key issue before tightening the WIP’s fiscal noose on the counties.

Charles “Chip” 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.

“This should be priority one,” 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 “plumes” of pollution that no amount of local counties’ costly WIPs could reduce.

But Summers said a key pollutant of the Bay—nitrogen—flows 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 nitrogen—such 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 “no one is responsible” 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 “Exelon is certainly aware that sediment is our top issue” 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 “expedite” the study so that its findings could be used in the FERC case as a possible “condition” 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 homes’ drinking water wells, despite the fact that new dumping stopped 20 years ago.)

“What parameters and criteria is your department going to use before you sign off” 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.

“We have not allowed it to be used until we get a solution there,” Summers said of the Earleville site and the agency’s past concerns that led to the cessation of dumping two decades ago. He said MDE’s goal now would be to “prevent pollution in the future” and to “fix the problem” caused by past dumping.

“We want the contamination stopped,” Summers said, “but we don’t have a specific fix.”

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 “leak detection system” 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 “hole” that allowed pollutants to get into aquifers for many years.

“We haven’t worked out the details,” 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 residents’ 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 residents’ water supplies are remediated.

After the meeting, Summers told Cecil Times that “private drinking water wells are the responsibility, in general, of the property owners” and that arsenic and other pollutants found in some Earleville wells near the dump are often “naturally occurring substances” in Maryland soils. But “where there’s a responsible party,” he said, “we’re going to be making sure it’s taken care of as part of the solution.”

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 channels—with 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 Council—including 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.

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2 Responses to State Leaders Tour Conowingo Dam, Admit Dam is Half of Bay Pollution but Cecil County Still on Hook for Cleanup Costs

  1. Al Reasin on May 31, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    As usual our state government is willing to spend millions of our money to implement fixes or to force the counties to do it; many of these efforts, as in the past, will get wiped out during the next storm. And if the nitrogen is free flowing from upstream sources, where is the MD lawsuit against NY and PA?

    I contend that PA and NY are doing little to reduce the problems that impact the Bay. Last fall I traveled extensively through PA and NY in the Susquehanna River area and every place I stopped I made it a point to ask about the May 12, 2009 Executive Order 13508, creating the WIP policy and explained what it was. No one knew what I was talking about including an old friend who is on a local board, a planning board if I remember correctly, and is a farmer near the river.

    But then most Marylanders probably don’t know about WIP, or even the rain tax, since most seemly don’t want to be bothered until it hits them in the pocketbook. Too many low information citizens it seems to me.

    Thanks for helping to get out the word.

  2. John Cole on June 6, 2013 at 1:58 am

    Al is absolutely correct. Executive Order 13508 was issued in May 2009. The only reaction by NY, PA and DE, all of whom are in the watershed, is the production of reams of PDF documents, all of which state that they have failed to meet sediment targets; in fact all of these states report increased sediment. Maryland, according to the reports, HAS achieved the target, with the exception of phosphorous loading:

    http://www.epa.gov/reg3wapd/tmdl/ChesapeakeBay/RestorationUnderway.html

    With the mighty muscle of the EPA behind them, Maryland should not need a lawsuit – the EPA should be reacting, and compensating us, while we maintain our efforts to keep the Bay clean.

    Although this is apparently an issue for Exelon, Cecil County and Maryland, the primary problem is not caused by any of these entities, and funds for rectifying the problem must come from the causation states.

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