A coalition of conservation groups from the Lower Susquehanna River Basin and the Chesapeake Bay have filed a motion to intervene in the federal relicensing negotiations of the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam – calling for a commitment from the dam’s owner, Exelon Corporation, to mitigate almost 200 million tons of sediment pollution that has amassed behind the dam since its construction in 1928.
“Our seven years of research on Conowingo leaves us with no doubt that the unnatural amounts of sediment that are scoured from Conowingo Pond into the Bay during major storm events are damaging the Bay, making the work of cleaning up the Bay even more difficult,” said Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Michael Helfrich, who represents Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna (SOLS). “Solutions to this, and other impacts, must be addressed in this relicensing process.”
The interveners, which consist of 100 groups and individuals from SOLS and 18 riverkeepers from Waterkeepers Chesapeake, say they “support relicensing of the dam as long as the final license includes adequate plans to mitigate the environmental and recreational impacts caused by the dam.”
SOLS and Waterkeepers Chesapeake filed on the grounds that they would feel the direct impact of adverse conditions “adopted in the final dam license” and that the relicensing proceedings are “vital for determining what will be done about the dam’s impoundment and release of large amounts of pollutants – especially sediment.”
Exelon is asking to renew its license through 2060.
In a press release on Friday, Helfrich challenged the assertion often made by Exelon that it is not responsible for sediment pollution that flows to the dam from Pennsylvania and New York. Helfrich acknowledged that the pollution comes from upstream but said the dam creates an “unnatural release of pollutants.” He said the sediment behind the dam weighs in at the equivalent of 2,000 aircraft carriers.
“The fact is that they created a “storage facility” that traps the pollutants, and then releases these pollutants in quantities that would otherwise not have entered the Bay all at once,” Helfrich said. “During Tropical Storm Agnes, the Susquehanna delivered three times the amount of pollution to the Bay than it would have if Safe Harbor, Holtwood, and Conowingo Dams didn’t exist. This unnatural release of pollutants is why we believe that Exelon needs to take some responsibility for the cost of cleaning up the sediment from behind their dam.”
Exelon is the nation’s second largest energy company.
The intervention last week comes just three weeks after the Clean Chesapeake Coalition filed on behalf of seven local governments in Maryland that have challenged the science of a 2010 EPA mandated cleanup plan, which the CCC insists gave no sense of urgency to the dam. Nearly 50 percent of the annual pollution in the Bay travels from the Susquehanna through the Conowingo and scientists have long warned the spills through the dam will be of greater magnitude as that dam reaches its maximum storage capacity of 204 million tons.
The Clean Chesapeake Coalition has come under fire from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other environmental groups for trying to subvert the EPA cleanup plan, which calls for communities in the Chesapeake Watershed states to mitigate runoff into the Bay that originates in their rivers and tributaries.
But the chair of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian, said last November that their push for a fix at Conowingo would not be the excuse to undermine local Watershed Implementation Plans.
“This is in no way a time where I’m going to turn my back on the environment and use the Conowing Dam as a scapegoat,” Fithian said last November when Kent County joined the CCC.
Both groups officially support local cleanup plans as well as holding Exelon to account to bear some of the burden and cost to devise a plan to remove the sediment from behind the dam. They also agree that now is the only time to intervene – before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves Exelon’s relicensing application.
“Efforts to reduce our local pollution will be made more difficult because of this additional pollution from the dam; or the taxpayers will pay for the cleanup at the dam while Exelon continues to profit,” Helfrich said. “We don’t think that either of these results is fair to the people of Pennsylvania. We want Exelon to pay its fair share.”
Chester River Association Riverkeeper David Foster said he was optimistic about joining the intervention and reiterated that efforts for a remedy at the dam should work in concert with and “not instead of” implementing local cleanup efforts.
“Ron Fithian and I would agree that pollution in the Chester River comes from sources here in the community,” Foster said.
Foster said he believes that Fithian is sincere that local cleanup efforts should not be thwarted to wait for a solution at Conowingo, but he expressed doubt about other members of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, who’ve said local cleanup plans could be avoided if the storage capacity at the dam is increased by dredging.
Midshore River Keeper Tim Junkin said he too supports the recent intervention by Waterkeepers Chesapeake, but challenged earlier public statements of other members of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition.
“We are aware that the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, represented by Funk and Bolton, has also filed a motion to intervene in the process, and it may well be that our interests on this important issue are now aligned,” Junkin said. “We disagree, however, with voices in the past that suggested that local, county, or state efforts to significantly reduce pollution on the local level should be postponed or diluted until the Conowingo issue is resolved. All of these solutions are necessary, not just any single one.”
CCC responds to the recent intervention
“When we first started the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, it was my hope that we had finally found an issue where all of the different user groups could come together and fight to make a difference in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay,” Fithian said. “So needless to say, I am now thrilled that the Riverkeepers of the Chesapeake have too filed a Motion to Intervene in the re-licensing of the Conowingo. I have to say that I am still saddened and mystified by the absence of the one group whose motto is “Save the Bay.” Obviously, I am referring to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.”
“The Clean Chesapeake Coalition applauds SOLS, LSR and newly formed Waterkeepers Chesapeake organization for their intervention in the FERC relicensing of the Conowingo Dam, bringing more deserved attention to the single largest source of pollution to the Bay and the greatest threat to the overall health of the Bay,” said the CCC’s attorney, Charles “Chip” MacLeod of Funk & Bolton in an email to the Spy. “The officials of the Coalition counties look forward to other Bay-focused agencies, organizations and advocates throughout the watershed acknowledging the critical importance of regaining trapping capacity in the reservoirs above the dam in order to protect the unparalleled restoration efforts and taxpayer expenditures below the dam and to give the Bay a fighting chance.”