Gov. Hogan Puts Muscle Behind Conowingo Dam Permit, Considers Susquehanna Sediment Dredging as Bay Cleanup Tool
Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is convening a top-level task force to seek solutions to pollution of the Chesapeake Bay caused by sediment build-up behind the Conowingo Dam in Cecil County, including possible costly dredging. The governor’s action underscored the clout that the state has through its environmental review powers that could delay or block pending re-licensing of the dam by a federal agency.
Hogan’s announcement on Thursday came as part of a three-day whirlwind tour of Harford, Cecil and Kent counties on the Upper Shore, a visit that saw him eating ice cream in Rising Sun, dining with county and town officials in Port Deposit, and presiding over a ribbon-cutting for an expansion of a high-tech mushroom farm in Warwick. He also mingled with donors at a political fundraiser in Charlestown for his expected re-election campaign in 2018.
“We must address the sediment issue which has been ignored and left unresolved” for years, Hogan said, adding that his administration has been “working tirelessly” to find solutions to pollution of the Chesapeake Bay. But those efforts, he said, “could easily be wiped out by the effects of one really bad storm.”
The Susquehanna River is the largest river feeding the Bay, and during storms the Conowingo Dam opens its floodgates and releases tons of sediments that flow into the river and the Bay—including a sediment plume that extended 100 miles below the dam in 2011. Estimates of the accumulated sediment backed up behind the dam run as high as 170 million tons, and a watershed study issued earlier this year concluded that the reservoir was essentially at full capacity and could no longer trap further sediments or prevent them from entering the Bay.
Hogan’s move fulfills a campaign promise when he ran for governor, saying that more attention needed to be paid to the dam’s impact on the Bay instead of what he said was former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s primary focus on limiting suburban stormwater flows and rural farmland run-off that ends up in the Bay.
The announcement was also a victory for the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a consortium of ten counties primarily on the Eastern Shore, that has fought for recognition of the impact the buildup of sediments behind the Conowingo Dam has on Chesapeake Bay water quality. The largely rural counties, including Cecil County, have complained that they face multi-million dollar costs to meet mandates to prevent pollution of the Bay while a key source of pollution—the dam—was exempt from such requirements.
Hogan did not mention the Clean Chesapeake Coalition during a press conference on Thursday at the Donaldson Brown conference center, overlooking the Susquehanna River in Port Deposit. But Hogan arrived at the center shortly after a meeting of the Coalition there, and he spent about a half-hour talking with Coalition members, along with several key state department heads. Hogan referred to that brief encounter as the “first Conowingo Dam Summit.”
Standing outdoors in sweltering humidity, with a broad panorama of the Susquehanna River behind him, Hogan said he was creating a special task force consisting of officials from the state Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), Department of Planning; the Maryland Port Authority; the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science; the U.S. Geological Survey; the Army Corps of Engineers; the Susquehanna River Basin Commission; and the Maryland Environmental Service. That group will issue a “Request for Information” in September, to seek ideas from the public, agencies and the private sector on “how dredging of the Conowingo Dam and beneficial re-uses of dredged material can be accomplished in the most economically and technically feasible way possible.”
But that “request for information” was widely viewed by local officials as a formality before an expected “request for proposals” process, in which the state would seek applications by organizations or private businesses to dredge the sediments or propose cost-effective commercial re-use of the sediments after removal. Several years ago, representatives of a regional company told Cecil County commissioners about a concept to convert the sediments into rock-like material that could be used in construction projects, with a possible manufacturing facility at the nearby Bainbridge site that has long been sought for re-development after its abandonment as a Navy training center decades ago.
Although the governor’s new initiative opens the door to possible dredging, it is by no means a given that such steps will be taken, given the potential costs and logistics—such as where to put the dredged material—that would make dredging a daunting project. But the governor’s move could be a strong bargaining chip in dealing with the dam’s owner.
The dam’s owner, Exelon Corporation, and the US Army Corps of Engineers have claimed that dredging the reservoir of accumulated sediments behind the dam could cost millions to billions of dollars and questioned whether the costs were warranted since nutrient pollution such as phosphorus and farmland run-off were principal causes of Chesapeake Bay pollution.
The dam has produced hydroelectric power since 1928 and is a major contributor to the regional power grid. Its operating license is currently up for renewal by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) under a process in which environmental issues play a key role. In particular, the state, through the MDE’s Water Quality Permit review process, has significant clout in the review process. Already, environmental and other issues have delayed the FERC process and the dam received a temporary extension of its existing license pending further reviews. If FERC approves a license renewal, it will last for 46 years.
In 2014, MDE fired a warning shot at Exelon, saying it was inclined not to grant the water quality permit because of concerns about the impact of the sediment build-up on Bay water quality. Exelon withdrew its formal application at that time, so as to prevent a permit denial that would have dashed its hopes of FERC licensing. But that only kicked the can down the road (or river) and there have been ongoing discussions on the issues between the state and Exelon.
MDE Secretary Ben Grumbles told reporters that the agency, which normally has a one-year review period after a formal application is submitted, could delay the process further if needed to resolve water quality concerns. In the interim, MDE is holding discussions with Pennsylvania—a key contributor to polluted sediment run-off that flows into the Susquehanna River—about trading “nutrient credits” that could count against federal Bay clean-up mandates affecting all states in the river’s watershed.
Hogan said that any solution would require co-operation with Pennsylvania and New York, which both contribute sediment to the river, and Exelon, the dam’s owner.
MDE has a recent precedent if the agency, and Hogan, decide to play hardball over the dam issue. MDE threatened to withhold a water quality permit from the US Army Corps of Engineers and block re-opening of the Pearce Creek dumpsite in Earleville to renewed dumping of shipping channel dredge spoils, because an independent federal study showed that the dump had polluted several aquifers serving homeowners’ water wells in the southern Cecil County area.
Eventually, the Maryland Port Administration brokered a deal by agreeing to pay about $14 million to build a water pipeline from the town of Cecilton to the affected communities. MDE ruled that the pipeline was a condition of its permit and no new dumping could take place until local residents had town water in their homes.
Recently, Grumbles and state health officials stepped in to require the US Army Corps to pay the costs of bottled water to the local residents after federal health officials voiced concerns about significantly elevated levels of manganese in local wellwater. The Corps will have to foot the bottled water bill until the pipeline is ready for service in 2017.