Court Challenge Rescinds Conowingo Dam Re-licensing – Back to Negotiations

A federal court decision, in a case brought by multiple environmentally-focused stakeholder groups, has invalidated the 50 year federal license extension granted to Constellation Energy to operate the Conowingo Dam.

A major announcement last year on terms underpinning a generational extension of the federal operating license for Constellation’s hydroelectric dam facility across the Susquehanna River (and feeding into the Chesapeake Bay as a centerpiece tributary) has come unraveled in federal court. Several environmental organizations sued the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to undo the license extension granted in 2021, and in US District Court this week, they prevailed. (Many prior references, including some quoted/linked here reference Exelon as the Dam owner, but Constellation Energy broke from Exelon in 2022)

From coverage on the CBS News Baltimore website:

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia agreed with environmental groups that FERC exceeded its authority when it approved a 50-year license last year without including the water quality certification that Maryland issued in 2018.

Waterkeepers Chesapeake, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, ShoreRivers, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation challenged the state’s Conowingo Dam settlement with Constellation Energy, arguing that it failed to protect water quality in the Susquehanna River, the Chesapeake Bay’s primary tributary.

The re-licensing of the dam has been a central issue for the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, supported by multiple Maryland counties. From their website (prior to the latest decision):

In June of 2013, the Coalition, on behalf of each of the Maryland counties that serve as its members, filed its Motion to Intervene in the relicensing application process associated with the Exelon’s Conowingo Dam hydroelectric project. This intervention presents the most significant opportunity to save the Bay in our lifetime, given that the license renewal is for a term of 30-50 years. The Coalition’s intervention will hopefully move the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to impose significant conditions upon the relicensing of the Dam. These conditions would require the cleanup of the toxic conditions which exist in sediment of the Dam’s reservoir, thereby minimizing further contaminants from entering the Bay.

A settlement of various issues, and a related commitment to Bay cleanup leading to the license extension, was covered on Conduit Street in the fall of 2019: Conowingo Settlement Targets Bay Cleanup, Clears Way For Licensing. From that article:

The Conowingo Dam, whose federal license is up for renewal before the Federal Energy Regulatory Committee, has been seeking its clearance for that approval – including a state-level sign-off for years. The $200 million settlement announced today presumably clears the path for at least that part of the process ahead.

Coverage of this week’s decision is also covered on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation website:

Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has consistently challenged Maryland’s Conowingo Dam settlement with Constellation, which split from the Exelon in 2022, because it failed to protect water quality in the Susquehanna River, the Bay’s primary tributary. Among its failures:

-It forfeited Maryland’s right to modify the dam’s pollution permit, preventing the state from requiring Exelon to reduce pollution coming from the dam for the next 50 years.

-It didn’t expressly require Exelon to add the pollution reduction measures the company said it would fund as part of the settlement.

-It did not focus settlement funds to Pennsylvania, where pollution projects are most urgently needed to address Bay pollution being exacerbated by the dam’s presence on the Susquehanna River.

Stay tuned to Conduit Street for continuing coverage on bay cleanup issues, and the dam licensing.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties