The Chesapeake Bay Foundation is taking action to address the growing amount of pollution building up behind a dam on the Bay’s largest source of fresh water, the Susquehanna River.
Today, CBF filed a motion with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to intervene in the Exelon Generation Company’s application for a license to continue operating its Conowingo Dam in north central Maryland.
“The owner, as well as the states of Pennsylvania and Maryland, must meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act to ensure the Chesapeake Bay is protected,” said Kim Coble, CBF Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration.
For years, the 85-year-old hydroelectric dam had been catching roughly two-thirds of the sediment (which carries phosphorus pollution) that flowed past it down the Susquehanna River, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment. Between 1996 and 2008, about 12 million tons of muck built up in the reservoir behind the dam, the U.S. Geological Survey reports.
Now the reservoir is almost completely filled. And so large storms dig up the stored sediment and flush it down the Susquehanna in great brown slugs into the Chesapeake Bay, where it muddies the water and kills underwater grasses.
Several government agencies, including the Maryland Department of the Environment and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, have been studying the problem of what to do with the sediment behind the dam. They plan to issue a report on solutions in the fall of 2014. Possibilities could include dredging the material out from behind the dam; or carefully releasing some of the sediment during the winter, when it would do less harm to aquatic vegetation.
Meanwhile, Exelon in August 2012 filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for a license to continue operating the dam, which the federal agency is now considering.
Some Maryland counties have been claiming that they should delay reducing their local pollution in the Bay until the problems of the Conowingo Dam are solved. But this makes no sense. For the Chesapeake to be restored to health, pollution must be reduced from all sources -- from Pennsylvania, upstream from the Conowingo Dam, as well as from places like the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland, whose polluted local streams have no connection to the problems with the Conowingo Dam.
By intervening in the license re-application for the dam, CBF intends to act as a watchdog for the Bay. CBF will participate in the evaluation of what the federal government should require Exelon to do with the sediment to prevent it from flooding into the Chesapeake. CBF believes the power company must be accountable and bear some of the cost of handling the problem. Taxpayers must not be asked to shoulder the entire bill for reducing the buildup of pollutants behind the dam.
This problem cannot be ignored. A comprehensive solution is necessary. And CBF intends to be part of the decision-making so the Bay is protected and its revival will continue.
By Tom Pelton
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photo from University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science)