Maryland Certification Requires Exelon to Address Conowingo Dam’s Water Pollution

A Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) press release (2018-04-27) announced the release of the state’s Water Quality Certification for the relicensing of the Conowingo with special conditions that includes requiring Exelon Generation Company LLC, the dam’s owner, to address the nutrient and sediment pollution generated by the dam and its reservoir. The certification also requires Exelon to improve conditions for aquatic life and fish migration and improve debris management.

The dam has posed a challenge for restoration efforts under the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load after research revealed that the dam’s reservoir has unexpectedly reached its capacity to trap sediment and nutrients from moving further downstream of the Susquehanna River and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. Exelon needs Maryland’s certification as part of its 50-year federal relicensing bid, which gives the state leverage over Exelon regarding the dam’s water pollution issues.

The Certification was jointly developed between MDE and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. From the press release:

“Maryland has taken bold, decisive action to reduce pollution in  the Chesapeake Bay and we are making tremendous progress, but all of our progress could be at risk if we do not pursue a comprehensive regional approach to reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River,” said Governor Larry Hogan. “From the beginning of our administration we have sounded the warning on the problems caused by the Conowingo Dam. This certification provides a strong framework for working with the upstream states and private partners such as Exelon to take real actions to address  the sediment and nutrient pollution problems caused by the dam so we can preserve the Bay for future generations.”

“The stringent environmental conditions in the certification are at the heart of a comprehensive strategy to speed up the cleanup of the Bay and hold our partners accountable for doing their part to create a healthier watershed. This water quality certification, based on sound science and law, includes responsible and necessary conditions for pollution prevention and continued progress for the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay,” said Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. “This water quality certification is part of a holistic approach, working with Exelon and our fellow watershed states, to meet our Bay restoration goals and help launch a restoration economy.” …

MDE sought to find a constructive solution to the challenges at Conowingo Dam by working together with Exelon, but recently concluded that it is unrealistic for the department and the company to reach a negotiated settlement regarding the water quality certificate prior to the May 17, 2018, deadline, as mandated under the Clean Water Act, for a state response to the application.

As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Executive Council of the Chesapeake Bay Program determined that the Conowingo Dam should have its own Watershed Implementation Plan (WIP) but it was unclear who would bear ultimate responsibility for the dam’s pollution loads. Maryland’s Certification would hold Exelon responsible, although the company’s responsibility would be reduced based on pollution reductions achieved by affected Bay watershed states. The Executive Council, which Hogan currently chairs, is expected to meet again during the summer of 2018 to further discuss the Conowingo WIP.

Bay Journal article (2018-04-29) also reported on the Certification and included responses from Exelon and environmental groups. From the article:

The state’s action drew praise from environmental groups. Alison Prost, acting vice president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, thanked Hogan and MDE for wanting to hold Exelon accountable, saying that “the very presence of this dam alters the form and timing of river water and pollution reaching the Chesapeake Bay.” …

Exelon spokeswoman Deena O’Brien said the company was reviewing the state’s conditions, while reiterating its longstanding position that the dam itself is not adding nutrient pollution to the river or the Bay. …

The Exelon spokeswoman said the company “will continue to work with the state, local communities and environmental organizations to find a comprehensive and long-term solution” to the impacts of pollutants flowing past the dam.

The article noted that Exelon has 30 days to appeal the Certification by requesting an administrative hearing and then potentially going to court. Grumbles indicated in the article that MDE was prepared to defend the Certification if necessary

Useful Links

MDE’s Water Quality Certification for the Conowingo Dam

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of the Conowingo Dam