Fithian Blasts CBF, Says New Coalition Bringing Better Attention to Conowingo

Sediment from the Conowingo Dam after Tropical Storm Lee in 2011

Sediment from the Conowingo Dam after Tropical Storm Lee in 2011

Kent County Commissioner Ron Fithian on Tuesday blasted the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for its deafening silence and lack of advocacy in addressing pollution coming from the Susquehanna through the Conowingo Dam — a point where many experts, and even CBF, say is the single largest source of sediment and nutrient pollution into the Chesapeake.

Fithian also blasted CBF for criticizing the Kent Commissioners’ decision to join the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a seven-county coalition dedicated to addressing a fix at the Conowingo before the operator, Exelon Power, is approved for relicensing in 2014.

The coalition has hired the law firm of Funk and Bolton to challenge the science of the state’s new federally mandated Bay cleanup plan. The firm argues that the plan virtually ignores the Conowingo as the biggest source of pollution in America’s largest estuary.

In the ten minute video below, Fithian explains the work of the coalition, which Kent joined at a cost of $25,000.

“We were heavily criticized by all the so called experts,” Fithian said at Tuesday’s Commissioners’ meeting. “I would get calls at 7:30 in the morning, still in the shower, from people like the Chesapeake bay Foundation, who tried to tell us not to join the coalition.”

“I found that extremely puzzling to me that [an organization] whose motto is to “Save the Bay” would not want to take a look at something that was so important,” Fithian said. “I can’t understand it, and I probably never will.”

He said the new coalition has raised the attention of an influential state lawmaker, the Chesapeake Executive Council, and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

“Nobody wanted to talk about the Conowingo Dam until the coalition was formed,” Fithian said. He said historically more blame has been put on farmers and waterman for the condition of the Bay. “Now it seems, and I’m pleased to announce, that everyone wants to talk about [the Conowing].”

He said the Citizens Advisory Committee for the Chesapeake Executive Council, consisting of 29 members appointed by governors of four states and the Mayor of DC, has written letters to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the EPA to look into the problems at Conowingo—before Exelon Corporation is relicensed to operate the dam in 2014.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, D-Baltimore, the powerful chair of the Environmental Matters Committee has recently made cleaning up the Conowingo Dam a top priority.

“One of the strongest committee members in Annapolis, without any exaggeration,” Fithian said. “She has just been appointed Chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission…and she says her number one priority this legislative year will be to work on finding ways to solve the problems at Conowingo Dam.”

The seven-county coalition was formed in response to state’s federally mandated Watershed Implementation Program—designed to bring the Chesapeake into compliance with the Clean Water Act by 2025.

The state’s WIP plan sets timelines and milestones for Bay cleanup by requiring local governments to reduce farm, septic, and storm water runoff through locally enacted laws.

The seven-county coalition has argued that little attention to the Conowingo Dam puts an unfair burden on local governments and taxpayers to bear the most cost of Bay cleanup—while problems at the Conowingo Dam are ignored.

But CBF and other environmental groups are concerned that the coalition could use problems at Conowingo as an excuse to delay implementing local cleanup plans.

Maryland’s WIP plan was the result of a lawsuit won by Chesapeake Bay Foundation in 2010 that compelled the EPA to enforce the 1972 Clean Water Act. Under a consent decree, states in the Chesapeake Watershed, from New York to Virginia, were required to submit a WIP plan to the EPA that brought the Bay into compliance with the Clean Water Act by 2025.

So far, the cleanup costs to be shared by local communities in Maryland could reach as high as $14 billion.

Update: According to Clean Chesapeake Coalition Attorney Chip MacLeod, $3.7 billion will go to mitigate nutrient runoff from septic systems that  contribute 50,000 pounds of nitrogen into the Bay annually. By contrast, the Conowingo Dam releases 40 percent of the total nitrogen load into the Bay annually–131 million pounds.

Letters to Editor

  1. Rory Rivers says

    I have yet to understand the content of that lawsuit we’re paying for. Is the argument that if Conowingo’s contribution to the TMDL were accounted for, our proportional share of TMDL would be smaller? Shame on CBF for ignoring the issue, but if that’s the case, why aren’t we suing Exelon?

    Maggy and Pipkin have a good relationship. Hopefully they can get together and bring the hurt this session.

    • Ron Fithian says

      There is NO lawsuit. The money was put up to hire a firm to uncover information concerning the dam, help to lobby our elected officials in Annapolis concerning this issue and represent us in the relicensing of the Conowingo Dam. This is a real chance to make a real difference in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Something no one has been successful in doing in the past! It is troubling to me that many people and organizations want to discuss this issue except the one group whose motto is to “Save The Bay”. The CBF receives million’s of dollars a year from people who truly want them to do one thing. WORK TO SAVE THE BAY But on this issue they continue to remain silent. You have to wonder why?

    • Joe Diamond says


      From my reading, Exelon is the one entity we (anyone on the Bay) does not want to sue. Exelon is making money, in theory, from every drop of water that goes through their hydroelectric operation. It is the debris, silt and chemicals that need abating. Exelon has an interest in stopping this. It is only they, because they are a business, that can write off cleanup efforts. So they need management & stroking!

      The threat of lawsuits will move more corporations than actually going to court. Corporations can also write off legal costs so once they take the hood off thbeir falcon we are screwed.

      Besides, Exelon did not….does not…throw the crap in the Susquahanna. Because it comes out of their dam doesn’t mean they made it or even like it.

      What I propose is the minstral attack! Identify the polluters up river and song ’em!. The PA water monitors are already doing much in this area. What I think is needed is the pressure of kids singing the ridicule of them damn Amish who let their bulls poop in the streams. Let summer cottage folks know where their decks floated and how many boats were sunk.

      Stuff like that,


  2. DG Fleagie says

    The caption to your photo reads “Sediment from the Conowingo Dam after Tropical Storm Lee in 2011”. This implies that there would be no sediment if there were no dam, which of course is inaccurate. The dam concentrates sediment, it doesn’t cause it.

    • DG Fleagle says

      Maybe we’re talking about semantics here. The sediment comes from farms, construction sites, uncontrolled runoff enlarging drainage ditches, streams where cattle have trampled and damaged the banks, and so on. The dam traps the sediment and the nutrients that it contains. So much sediment has built up — about one-hundred thirty million tons — that the dam can no longer contain it during storms. It is estimated that Hurricane Lee moved about four million tons from behind the dam to the Bay.

      But none of the sediment is FROM the dam originally, as caption seems to imply. That is all that I was saying.

      If you look at a higher-resolution copy of the photo, you can see the extent of sediment along the length of the Susquehanna

      For more interesting information:

    • Joe Diamond says

      Over in Baltimore in the Maryland Science Center there is a core sample of one of the rivers here…I think the Sassafrass……and it showed sediment for one hundred years. Then they identified 1934 and showed how that one year was equal to the previous one hundred years. This is an old issue that has been ignored for a long time.

      Hiding things by throwing them in the air works for a little while. Then . . .


  3. As one who initially opposed the decision by our county commissioners to join what was then called the “TMDL Coalition,” I am pleased to learn that the coalition has been able to raise awareness of the problems associated with the Conowingo Dam. While most of the pollution in the Chester River is generated locally, it is also obvious that the sediment that flows through the dam following major storms has long been a serious problem and the Chester River Association supports all reasonable efforts to address this problem. Commissioner Fithian is therefore to be commended for helping keep the coalition focused on efforts to improve management of the Conowingo Dam, rather than using this as an excuse for some counties to avoid addressing pollution problems generated within their own boundaries.

    Even as I argued last fall against joining this coalition, I also made clear that regardless of which way the Commissioners voted that CRA would continue to work with state and county officials to help develop the most cost-effective programs possible for protecting our waterways. Over the past several months I have had the opportunity to discuss our concerns with each of the Commissioners and with the attorneys representing the coalition and I have been very pleased with the spirit of cooperation evidenced by all parties. As Riverkeeper for the Chester River I will continue to work closely with all organizations seeking to develop fair, effective and efficient solutions to protect our waterways and will continue to speak out against any actions that threaten our common efforts to help implement those solutions.

    David Foster
    Chester Riverkeeper

  4. Kim Coble, Vice President for Environmental Protection and Restoration, Chesapeake Bay Foundation says

    First, credit Kent County for publicly committing to accelerate local clean-up measures IN ADDITION TO joining the coalition and bringing more attention to the Conowingo. That is precisely the kind of approach CBF has taken and will continue to take – Save the Bay means everyone doing his and her part, collaboration between states, governments, business and citizens. Unfortunately, lots of misinformation is being circulated about the Conowingo, about CBF’s role, etc. Of course, we are working on the Conowingo issue, but in addition (and this is critical) we ALSO are working to reduce pollution to the Susquehanna River. That is the real source of the problem. We have had an office in Harrisburg since 1986. We work in Pennsylvania on getting better policies for the Bay, but also we work on actual restoration projects. Last year alone our 43 runoff reduction projects with farmers in Pennsylvania resulted in a reduction of nearly 800,000 pounds of nitrogen pollution PER YEAR from flowing into Bay tributaries such as the Susquehanna, as well as a reduction of 273,000 pounds of phosphorus and 468 tons of sediment. We also are working with agencies in Maryland and Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. to find a solution to the sediment build up at the Conowingo and other dams, and have been involved in that work for years. Like other initiatives to clean the Bay the Conowingo clean-up is a staggeringly large job. We are working steadily to reduce pollution loads to the Susquehanna as well as to help find a solution to the sediment build up behind the Conowingo. And let me say – again—we invite any elected official concerned about the Conowingo to travel with us to Harrisburg and try to meet with Governor Corbett to jointly urge him to do more to reduce pollution flowing into the Susquehanna in the first place. Because in truth, we all have to do our part. For more information:

    • Jack Offett says

      I sat through a recent radio interview where the CBF mouthpiece called Kent and the rest of the coalition “duty shirkers.” Are they or aren’t they? The CBF needs to stop the trashing of the coalition just because it was asleep at the wheel.

      • Ron Fithian says

        First of all, read the reply above from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Talks pretty good about the Coalition. Now let me show you a letter written by William Baker, the President of that same organization back in November 9, 2012 to the Govenor of the State of Maryland concerning the Chesapeake Clean Coalition: We want to inform you of an effort underway to halt the implementation of the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint (TMDL and State WIPs). In our view, it is the most serious attack on clean water that we have seen in Maryland, and it threatens to undo the very progress that your administration has worked tirelessly to put in place… We feel that you need to immediately engage to prevent this attack from gaining additional momentum and to reverse the course of those counties that have signed onto this misguided approach. We believe the state needs an aggressive targeted response to counter this effort by some counties to ignore their legal obligatios under the Clean Water Act and Maryland Law.”

        Now first of all let me say as the President of the Kent County Commissioner’s we have not ignored any legal obligations or disobeyed any laws. Secondly, does that letter sound anything like an organization that wants to work together for a common cause. Come on CBF you can’t have it both ways!!

        • Jack Offett says

          You stepped on the Raging Red Head’s toes. Of course he is going to whine and point fingers when exposed for ignoring this (or better yet not taking action because CBF thrives on whining not doing.)

  5. As I’ve said a few times on here, I’m often skeptical of many environmental groups, since the biggest ones depend on State on Federal funding in addition to donations. These funds usually are solicited with a good mix of positive and negative news. Too much good news, and the problem is seen as less pressing. Too much negative news, and the organization appears ineffective. The dam seems to serve as a useful foil to these orgs.

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