Administrative & Legal Appeals Surround Maryland’s Conowingo Dam Decision

Bay Journal article (2018-07-09) provided an update on the ongoing controversy over how to address the water pollution flowing through the Conowingo Dam. For decades the dam’s reservoir has trapped nutrient and sediment pollution coming down the Susquehanna River and keeping the pollution from entering the main stem of the Chesapeake Bay. However, recent studies have shown that the “trapping” capacity of the  reservoir has been reached earlier than anticipated, requiring an additional 6 million pounds of nitrogen and 260,000 pounds of phosphorus to be annually offset to meet the 2025 water pollution reduction goals set by the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

Exelon, the owner of the dam, is currently seeking a 50-year renewal of its federal license to operate the dam. As part of federal relicensing requirements, Exelon must receive a Water Quality Certification from Maryland. In April of 2018, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) stated that it would grant the certification providing Exelon paid up to $172 million per year to address the water pollution issues surrounding the dam. Exelon has challenged the MDE decision both administratively and in state and federal courts, arguing that the while it is willing to provide some support in addressing the dam’s issues, $172 million per year figure is far more than the actual worth of the dam. Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association have also filed an administrative appeal, arguing that the MDE decision does not go far enough in holding Exelon accountable. The Bay Program, which administers the TMDL, has indicated the Conowingo Dam will receive its own Watershed Implementation Plan to address the issue, but has not decided who will be responsible for the additional reductions. 

The article provides a variety of perspectives from different stakeholders:

“The dam itself does not produce any pollution,” Exelon said in a statement issued May 25. “Rather, the science clearly shows that the pollutants that travel down the Susquehanna River, from New York and Pennsylvania, are the source of the nutrients and sediments that flow into the Bay.” …

In response, the MDE said it would “vigorously defend our comprehensive Conowingo plan to restore the river and the Bay. The Hogan administration is committed to using science, law and partnerships for environmental progress throughout the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed and the Conowingo plan is at the heart of our multi-state strategy to deliver the results Marylanders expect and deserve.” …

“The entire time Exelon has operated this, to their financial gain, it was known that this was going to happen someday and there were no preventative actions taken by Exelon,” said Alison Prost, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s acting vice president for environmental protection.

MACo’s longstanding position on the Conowingo Dam is that the excess nutrient and sediment pollution originating from the dam’s reservoir must be addressed. That burden should not fall on Maryland’s counties, which did not generate the pollution coming through the dam. Exelon, as the dam’s owner and beneficiary of the profits generated by the dam, should play a role in addressing the dam’s water pollution situation. Bay watershed states that generate the pollution flowing down the Susquehanna and into dam’s reservoir should also work to reduce their nutrient and sediment runoff.

Useful Links

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of the Conowingo Dam

Get the latest on the Conowingo Dam and the Bay TMDL during the 2018 MACo Summer Conference panel “Charting the Next Course for the Bay TMDL.” The panel will be held on August 16.

Learn more about MACo’s Summer Conference: