State, Exelon Settle Feud on Conowingo Dam, Susquehanna/Bay Pollution; Good News for Eels, Not So Much for Cecil County

October 29, 2019


Gov. Larry Hogan and Exelon announced on Monday (10/29/2019) a settlement of a longstanding feud over federal licensing for continued operations of the Conowingo Dam in Cecil County, with $200 million invested over 50 years in the Susquehanna River and Upper Bay areas for water quality improvements. But the deal, which will clear the way for issuing a new license for the dam, does little if anything to remove the huge stockpile of leaking sediment behind the dam that has contributed to major pollution of the upper Chesapeake Bay.

The agreement, hashed out after several years of intermittent feuding between the state and Exelon Generation Company, the dam’s owner, is good news for eels that will be able to slither through the dam to the Susquehanna River with greater ease.

And a whole new population of mussels will be dancing in their shells in a new mussel hatchery that will be created on Exelon-owned land along the Susquehanna. The new $25 million mussel project, including land value, is expected to capitalize on the creatures’ water filtration abilities to help reduce existing water pollution. Gov. Hogan said the mussel project would include creation of a “state of the art” 40,000 square-foot hatchery, with the mussels then released into the river to filter pollutants naturally.

While the total ‘value’ of the deal was estimated at $200 million, only about half– $107 million—is actual cash contributions to various ecological improvement projects. For Cecil County residents living along the Susquehanna and Upper Bay, the most significant element of the plan is $41 million, “to significantly increase efforts to remove trash and debris flowing down the Susquehanna River.”

In a statement issued by Exelon, the dam operator said the trash removal efforts would include “an engineering study examining additional methods to divert debris before it reaches the dam” and would include “skimming” and other means of debris removal.

When high water levels build up behind the dam, especially in periods of heavy rains, the dam operators open up multiple flood gates, resulting in a torrent of rushing water along with accumulated debris such as dead trees, logs, telephone poles and even furniture that rush down the Susquehanna into the Upper Bay. And area beaches become unusable and waterfront areas unswimmable.

Along with the debris, the turgid waters rush accumulated sediments into the Upper Bay, including shipping channels. Under an agreement between the state and the US Army Corps of Engineers, those dredge spoil sediments are being deposited at the newly re-opened Pearce Creek dumpsite in Earleville, in southern Cecil County. (The Corps-owned dump was found to have polluted area water wells and was only allowed to re-open after construction of a pipeline to deliver municipal water from the Town of Cecilton to more than 240 homes in the area.) But as more sediments pour through the dam, there is more material to be dredged and fill up the Earleville dumpsite.

Environmental groups and the “Clean Chesapeake Coalition”—a group of five counties including Cecil County- have focused on the need to remove the backed-up sediments at the dam to prevent further pollution of the Upper Bay. But the new deal does little to address that problem. The new agreement provides a paltry allocation of $500,000 for “a feasibility study of dredge material disposal options.”

As a candidate for governor in 2014, Hogan pledged to address the sediment and pollution problems at Conowingo. Two years into his first term, he showed up in Cecil County to pledge action and creation of an interagency working group on the issue. But nothing of any substance happened until December, 2017, shortly before he launched his re-election campaign, when Hogan announced a study and pilot project on ways to remove the accumulated sediments behind the dam. That proposal called for removal of just 25,000 cubic yards of debris and sediments behind the dam—a pittance in comparison with the estimated 31 million cubic yards of material backed up behind the dam. So far there have been no tangible results of that effort.

Charles (Chip) MacLeod, a Chestertown lawyer who heads the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, told Cecil Times that, based upon the preliminary statements from Hogan and Exelon, it appeared that the new deal is just a continuation of long established environmental policies, such as encouraging farmers to plant cover crops, boosting aquatic vegetation and promoting fish habitats. “We thought this whole thing was supposed to be about sediment management,” he said. But “nowhere in here is the most important lever: dredging.”

“Our problem is what is coming down the Susquehanna and being dumped into the Bay,” MacLeod said. The five counties participating in the Clean Chesapeake Coalition—Cecil, Kent, Queen Anne’s, Caroline and Dorchester counties—contend that they are being forced by the state to implement water cleanup programs but no matter how hard they try or how much they spend in local funds, their results are undermined by the pollution dumped downstream by the Conowingo Dam.

And MacLeod said the new agreement does not address the problems of “what happens when there is the next big storm,” such as past weather crises that created plumes of pollution the overwhelmed the dam and Upper Shore waterways.

Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy told CECIL TIMES that the preliminary details of the deal suggest that crucial Cecil County problems were largely overlooked. “I don’t really see anything that helps Cecil County and addresses our concerns,” he said.

Ted Eugeniadis, Riverkeeper for the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeepers Association, said that while the new mussel program and enhancements of previous efforts to promote the eel population were welcome, a key concern is whether the money called for in the deal will actually be spent on such projects.

He said the money is slated to be deposited into the state’s Clean Water Fund, where the money could be tapped for other projects around the state. He called for creation of a “lockbox” to ensure that the funds provided by Exelon are used for the intended purposes in the Susquehanna and Upper Bay.

Eugeniadis and MacLeod said they were waiting to review full details of the agreement, beyond officials’ characterizations of the deal, before commenting further. But it appears that there is little that their constituencies can do, since the Hogan administration struck a unilateral deal with Exelon with minimal input from citizens’ groups. Hogan said the deal would end the dispute between the state and Exelon and its contents would be sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) which had delayed action on licensing renewal for the dam pending the state issuing a required Water Quality permit for the dam.

Previously, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) had issued demands for broad water quality improvements as a condition of issuing a state permit. But in two lawsuits filed in 2018 by Exelon, the company claimed the interim MDE order would cost the company $172 million a year for compliance. And that figure was much more than the value of the dam to Exelon as a business venture, Exelon said—an implicit threat that Exelon might just abandon the dam entirely.

If that cost figure was at all true, then Exelon got off cheap in the new settlement deal: just $107 million in cash, spread out over 50 years, with the money to come from profits made by its operation of the dam.

But those slippery eels, who already were gifted with some better habitat and wiggle room to get through the dam under a previous federal Fish and Wildlife administration settlement with Exelon, will get an extra $1 million for eel-related research under the new pact with Maryland. The eels may just be the biggest winners, apart from Hogan’s face-saving benefits by crossing another item off his political to-do list as he contemplates his political future after completing his final term as governor.

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