Cecil County Council Ponders Susquehanna River Sediment, “Co-ordination” as Tool to Challenge State, Federal Mandates
Ah, it was all sweetness and light, cheerful cooperation and goodwill at the Cecil County Councilâs worksession on Tuesdayâgotcha, on April Foolâs Day. After yet another battle royale over approval of the Councilâs 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 âout of orderâ from Council President Robert Hodge (R-5). Broomell wanted, in several conflicting and vaguely worded proposals, to enhance the minutesâ account of her past discussions of a state letter to the county regarding âtier mapsâ on land use policies. But in the long run, the Council decided to adopt the unembellished minutes, with Broomell loudly proclaiming, âIâm opposed.â
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 âChipâ MacLeod, a Chestertown lawyer who heads the âClean Chesapeake Coalition,â 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 Damâwhich sends sediment pollutants from the Susquehanna River into the Chesapeake Bay in Cecil County.
MacLeod emphasized that âco-ordinationâ provisions of federal environmental laws amount to a âtoolâ 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.
âItâs not a litigation strategy,â he said. The provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requiring any project receiving federal funds or conducted by a federal agency to âco-ordinateâ with local governments affected by the project really mean that the local officials have a right to information, meetings and discussionsâbut not the final say on whether a project proceeds. The best outcome, MacLeod said, is for a county to negotiate âconditionsâ or locally-oriented provisions to make a project more palatable.
He added that the term âenvironmentâ has been interpreted in regulations and legal findings to include economic and social impacts, as well as âphysicalâ 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, âYou may be the most hated man in Maryland,â especially among state regulatory agencies. Cecil County has been contributing money annually, $25,000 most recently, to help support the Coalitionâs work.
MacLeod said the Coalitionâs goal was to âhelp local governments get a little more respectâ 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 regulationsâincluding casino projects in Baltimore City and Prince Georgeâs 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 Damâs 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 âwater qualityâ permit before the damâs re-licensing can proceed. MacLeod said the damâs owners recently filed for the permit, triggering a one-year deadline for action under Maryland law.
He said that the damâs operators would claim they were not responsible for the downstream pollution, and âtechnically they are right,â 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, âItâs only the federal government that can force this to a resolution.â