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Cecil County Council Ponders Susquehanna River Sediment, “Co-ordination” as Tool to Challenge State, Federal Mandates

April 1, 2014
By Nancy Schwerzler

Ah, it was all sweetness and light, cheerful cooperation and goodwill at the Cecil County Council’s worksession on Tuesday—gotcha, on April Fool’s Day. After yet another battle royale over approval of the Council’s past meeting minutes, the panel got down to some interesting information on how the county might use provisions of federal law to require a greater voice in decisions affecting the county on environmental issues.

Yet again, Councilor Diana Broomell (R-4) sought to re-write the minutes of a past council worksession and got one gavel as being ‘out of order’ from Council President Robert Hodge (R-5). Broomell wanted, in several conflicting and vaguely worded proposals, to enhance the minutes’ account of her past discussions of a state letter to the county regarding “tier maps” on land use policies. But in the long run, the Council decided to adopt the unembellished minutes, with Broomell loudly proclaiming, “I’m opposed.”

After a delay caused by a huge traffic backup on Route 213 due to a car accident on the Chesapeake City bridge, the Council heard a presentation by Charles “Chip” MacLeod, a Chestertown lawyer who heads the “Clean Chesapeake Coalition,” on how provisions of federal environmental law might be used by Cecil County to demand a greater voice in certain state and federal actions affecting the county.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition, which consists of several rural counties in the state including Cecil County that are concerned with costly state mandates, has been active in Annapolis and at the federal government level to address issues such as state stormwater run-off regulations and the federal re-licensing of the Conowingo Dam—which sends sediment pollutants from the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay in Cecil County.

MacLeod emphasized that “co-ordination” provisions of federal environmental laws amount to a “tool” for counties to have a greater voice in policy matters but do not mean that communities affected by water quality and other policies have a legal basis to fight state and federal decisions in court.

“It’s not a litigation strategy,” he said. The provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requiring any project receiving federal funds or conducted by a federal agency to “co-ordinate” with local governments affected by the project really mean that the local officials have a right to information, meetings and discussions—but not the final say on whether a project proceeds. The best outcome, MacLeod said, is for a county to negotiate “conditions” or locally-oriented provisions to make a project more palatable.

He added that the term “environment” has been interpreted in regulations and legal findings to include economic and social impacts, as well as “physical” environmental impacts such as pollution.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition has had a high profile in Annapolis on various environmental issues, prompting Councilor Hodge to joke to MacLeod, “You may be the most hated man in Maryland,” especially among state regulatory agencies. Cecil County has been contributing money annually, $25,000 most recently, to help support the Coalition’s work.

MacLeod said the Coalition’s goal was to “help local governments get a little more respect” from the state and federal governments that issue policies and regulations that impact the counties.

He also pointed out that several high-profile projects in more populous areas, with more political clout in Annapolis, have received special treatment under environmental regulations—including casino projects in Baltimore City and Prince George’s County and the planned Exelon new headquarters building in Baltimore.

MacLeod said that a key issue affecting Cecil County was the pending federal re-licensing of the Conowingo Dam’s operations in Cecil County under review by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). He commended the county for filing documentation on the impact of sediment buildups in the reservoir behind the dam, as those pollutants get dumped into the upper Bay in Cecil County when floodgates are opened– as they are currently due to recent rainfall and snow melting.

A key issue for the dam will be the decision by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) which will have to issue a “water quality” permit before the dam’s re-licensing can proceed. MacLeod said the dam’s owners recently filed for the permit, triggering a one-year deadline for action under Maryland law.

He said that the dam’s operators would claim they were not responsible for the downstream pollution, and “technically they are right,” because upstream pollution of the Susquehanna River from Pennsylvania and New York contribute most of the sediment that ends up being dumped into Cecil County waterways through the dam. But, he added, the real impact on Maryland waterways would make it more difficult for the MDE to issue the required water quality permit if environmental standards are enforced.

The only way to address the issue, MacLeod said, is for the federal government to get involved in removal or dredging of the backed-up sediments and pollutants behind the dam and preventing them from flowing into the Bay through Cecil County. But the costs would be astronomical, he noted.

Cecil County Executive Tari Moore, who attended the County Council worksession discussion, observed, “It’s only the federal government that can force this to a resolution.”

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4 Responses to Cecil County Council Ponders Susquehanna River Sediment, “Co-ordination” as Tool to Challenge State, Federal Mandates

  1. Rebecca Demmler on April 2, 2014 at 9:40 am

    Thank you for your continued well-written and comprehensive coverage of the county work-sessions and other county meetings. This valuable service is appreciated.

    • Joe C on April 5, 2014 at 8:18 pm

      Becky,
      Yes, I too appreciate the in-depth reporting. My thoughts on the subjects are, we must remember that somewhere down in the sediment is radioactive material from the 1978 nuclear disaster at TMI, so we must proceed cautiously. Additionally, we must solve the problem at it source otherwise it will just return and the dirty plumes we see in the bay will not be solved because most of what we see is clay particles which stay in suspension for a long time and will settle out in the bay.

      • Ron on April 6, 2014 at 6:39 pm

        Joe,
        Where are you getting the information that there is radioactive material in the sediment from TMI? I was heavily involved in the cleanup at TMI, and I do not recall Phila. Electric management making any announcement to that effect.

        It is fair to say that most sediment does come from Pa. and N.Y. states.

        • Joe C on April 7, 2014 at 6:06 pm

          Ron,
          Glad you helped out in that situation. Radioactive water was released into the river during that incident, the half-life of the elements released was certainly less than 37 years, so the odds of radioactive materials stacked up behind the dam is high. What am I saying it must be considered and dealt with prior to any actions at the dam.

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