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Fix the Dam Problem

ConowingoThe 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.

For example, one storm -- Tropical Storm Lee in September 2011 -- contributed 39 percent of the total amount of sediment from the river into the Bay over the previous decade, and 22 percent of the phosphorus pollution, according to U.S. Geological Survey.   This was despite the fact that the storm contributed only about 1.8 percent of the total amount of water pouring down the Susquehanna River over that same time period.  The outsize pollution numbers were an indication that the tropical storm flushed huge amounts of stored sediment and pollutants from behind the dam into the Bay.
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)




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Good luck guys! Stick it to'em. I see the much first hand after every tropical storm when it makes its way down the bay.


Glad you all are also intervening. This license renewal is critical to Chesapeake Bay Restoration.

This is the opportunity to dredge the pollutants above the dam and help make the Bay healthier.

I hope that the regulators do not give the corporations a waiver or extension.

Good job! The amount of pollution in the river and the bay is devastating.

Thanks for your support, Drew, Renee, Gary, and Blair! It is certainly a critical issue for the Bay.

It seems to me that Exelon -- a giant national power company that also owns Constellation Energy here in Maryland -- has a few bucks it could invest in a cleaner Chesapeake Bay. After all, it and its predecessor owners of the Conowingo Dam would not have been able to make all this money over the last 85 years selling electricity from the dam if it did not create this obstruction in the river -- which caught all this pollution, and now needs to be properly maintained.

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