18 Riverkeepers Intervene In Conowingo Relicensing


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.”

Letters to Editor

  1. joe diamond says

    That dam did not generate the sediment that is trapped behind it. Sediment is not a byproduct of hydroelectric power production and transmission. Water is used to produce electricity. The electricity leaves the site through heavy cables to the power grid. If the dam had not been constructed all the sediment would now be somewhere in the bay.

    While it is true something must be done it is also true that if all the costs of control sediment are visited on the stockholders of the power company the stock will lose value and eventually the lack of profits will end the electric operation. After that there will be nobody to sue; no funds to clean up anything. And the sediment will continue to arrive until the reservoir behind the dam becomes a swamp with trees and grasses. Eventually the dam structure will fail and the sediment will continue its journey to the sea.

    Without intervention the silting process will eventually fill the bay. The questions to be resolved seem to be how to slow and stop that process and who pays.
    Exelon Corporation has held the sediment back but is running out of capacity for storage of sediment allowed to flow into the Susquehanna River by other up river sources. Below the dam users of the Chesapeake want to protect “their” bay.

    I don’t see the hydroelectric license having any relation to the sediment issue. Blame must seek another home.


    • Ryan Weitzel says

      I also feel that Excelon should pay for some of this clean up. If the dam wasn’t there, sure there would be sediment deposited in the bay but it would be a gradual process instead of getting huge amounts of silt all at once during a flood. I have been out on the flats where the bay grasses were growing well only to be covered up by silt after a flood. That amount of silt doesn’t come from below the dam. Remove the dam and a gradual influx of silt would enable to let the grasses expand and re-root instead of being completely smothered by silt. The dam is there, creating an unnatural flow thus changing the bay’s ability to recover on it’s own which also costs tax payers money. If Excel on would help clean up the pollution on a schedule, I don’t see how that would affect their billions of dollars they get for overcharging customers for electricity. No one is expecting them to foot the entire bill. I’m sure if they were to facilitate the acquisition of equipment, set up a schedule and help find contractors and volunteers to help, it wouldn’t cost as much as you think. I would be willing to put in some time and hard labor to help if this would happen.

  2. The construction of the Cononwingo Dam and other lower Susquehanna River dams dramatically changed the ecology of the Bay, depriving the Bay of sand and today unloading unmanageable amounts of nutrients and sediment due to scour during storm events. The Conowingo Dam was built to produce electricity for a profit (and at the expense of the Bay’s ecological balance). The owners/operators of the dam have spent zero dollars dredging the Conowingo Reservior to maintain trapping capacity. Today, nobody is responsible for addressing the accumulated nutrients and sediments above the dam, and there no requirement, mandate, plan or budget to do so. Meanwhile, the State of Maryland has committed taxpayers to spending $14.5 billion to the year 2025 in the name of saving the Bay – with no consideration whatsoever for the single largest source of pollution to the Bay – the Susquehanna River. The full reservoirs above the dam are the greatest threat to the Bay and to the unparalleled restoration efforts and taxpayer expenditures below the dam. The FERC relicensing process presents a once in a generation opportunity to put conditions on Exelon to regain trapping capacity for the good of the Bay, which conditions (due to costs and equity) should in turn engage the Bay watershed states and Congress to reprioritize attention and resources to this issue of critical import to the Bay. Think of the jobs that would be created by an “all hands on deck” multi-state public-private partnership for purposes of dredging the Conowingo Reservior in the name of saving the Bay….or we can rely on regulating individual septic tanks.

    • joe diamond says

      You mentioned something I have not heard in any of the discussions.

      “The owners/operators of the dam have spent zero dollars dredging the Conowingo Reservior to maintain trapping capacity. Today, nobody is responsible for addressing the accumulated nutrients and sediments above the dam, and there no requirement, mandate, plan or budget to do so.”

      It could be that at that point they can be compelled to dewater the sediment above their dam and ship it elsewhere. There is a major rail connection, several interstate highways and a bay channel capable of barge & tug traffic pretty close to that dam. What would it take to get regional money to augment an Exelon provided dewatering process?

      I do not see how they can be compelled to do everything. They didn’t place the sediment. At the same time, as you point out, zero dollars is not enough.
      Along the lines of “you break it, you bought it”, any problem with the sediment would be down stream and maybe a gradual process. So they have all this sediment to get rid of somewhere. Maybe they could be compeled to gather the stuff on their site. The dewatering function could be done with electric gear. They have electricity. Getting rid of the sediment once it can be shipped might take an act of Congress.

      Aside from “nutrients” , I wonder what else is in that stuff? Perhaps the folks up river might want it back.


    • Robin Wood Kurowski says

      Thank you to Kent County, SOLS, LSR, River Keepers, CCC and those that really, really not only understand this …. but live and have lived it.
      Thanks for putting the cards on the table and putting in the chips.
      Yes, please continue the “unparalleled restoration efforts and taxpayer expenditures below the Dam and to give the Bay a fighting chance.”
      Yes, please find the ways to work together.
      Please also consider in these efforts the runoff in to Baltimore Harbor and the stew brewed there.

      Former Maryland Watermen’s Association President and Admiral of the Chesapeake Bay Larry Simns was known to say that “when the shad start running way past the Conowingo Dam, that’s when I’ll know the Bay is restored.”
      The State of Maryland, CBF and also the owner/operators of the Damn have had years and years to do the right things to correct this, but they haven’t and the blame is continually placed on commercial harvesters.

      In January of this year before Larry passed, my article about him was posted here on the Chestertown Spy:
      In this it is written:
      “Larry believes that the Chesapeake can bounce back in eighteen months and be completely rejuvenated in ten to fifteen years with these things:
      -Toilets that do not flush water
      -New methods for sewer treatment
      -Educated young people involved and interested in the Chesapeake
      -Consideration of and responsibility by watershed and effecting states including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia
      -Management of resources by watermen
      -More effective management of and responsibility by recreational fishermen
      -Faith in God and each other and working together”

      I have faith that Kent County, SOLS, LSR, River Keepers, and CCC will be a strong alliance that will work together and fight to make a difference in cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Now is YOUR TIME to do the right things. Please fight for this and please work together.

    • Thanks, Chip. Thanks, Ronnie. Thanks, Billy. Better late than never for the rest of them. 🙂

    • Jan Marie Nguyen says

      It was told to me, several years ago, that what is ‘the problem’ with dredging the damn – is that there is NO PLACE in this country that will accept the toxic sludge. Don’t forget Peach Bottom Nuclear Plant as well as many other industries are upstream. The sludge is evidently so toxic – that – they won’t even accept it as ‘fill’ – in places where they do mountain top mining, nor the deserts in areas such as Nevada. There is a railway that runs alongside of the damn – so the sludge could get dumped into railcars on the shore…. BUT NO BODY WILL ACCEPT it – its too nasty.
      The Boy Scouts also have a damn – smaller – are they offering to clean it up? They should not be immune from their responsibility either – time to practice what they preach. They are not always the ‘fine stewards’ they would have you to believe.
      Harford County, Md. which is home to Conowingo has been dancing an environmental dance with Excelon… but who can afford a better lawyer? Excelon does not ‘play nice with others”. It hasn’t needed to do so. With this amount of money at stake….. it requires a Federal Level intervention. I can see of no other way to be effective with a company of this size …. they capable and culpable. When you take a seat at the bottom of the hill, ya have to know which way ‘..it’ flows. and they bought that seat, and have profited well from it. Time to give something back.
      Go Riverwatchers! good eye!

      **To the prior posted who stated that “Pennsylvania taxpayers” are footing the bill, yoo hooo! Yours isn’t the only state… property taxes in Md. were just increased – for ‘rain water’.
      Let Excelon open a casino to pay for the dredging… and maybe sell the sediment to Detroit!

  3. I find these approaches to problems very confusing. We have made past decisions that may not have been perfect, but there are solutions. These solutions may not be perfect and they may not be 100%. These solutions get worked out when we combine science and realistic goals and not artificial goals. Yeah the company makes money, but the dam creates “cheap” electricity. The goal may be to make a change and figure out a way to decrease sediment loadings and then manage those loads. Therefore, a combination of science, public education, projects in the upstream watershed area, and public/private partnerships are the way to go. I can not speak to Maryland’s decision and approach, but it is difficult to “save” an environmental feature that is always in a state of dynamic equilibrium, plus a system that has been significantly encroached by local development. I can only imagine what the bay looked like after PA was clear cut about three times. Maybe some of Maryland’s money plus funds from the company should be allocated to removing sediment from the dam – seems like it is working to some degree as a forebay on the Bay. Perhaps that could be sold as a nutrient credit. Again not a perfect solution – but a start.

  4. Michael Ross says

    I have first-hand seen the decline in the health of the Chesapeake, having lived here my entire life and growing up on the waterfront. I can attest to the apparent validity of ‘the scientists’ claim that the dam has been the cause of devastating issues with the Bay. I personally saw the disappearance of native grasses, that once filtered the water making it clear enough to see ones’ toes in 4-5′ depth. This occurred within approximately one year of the Agnes Storm event.
    I strongly agree that if this dam is to be re-licensed, its’ owner/benefactor must ‘contribute’ to the removal of the obviously harmful (esp in large singular deposits) sediment. The fed should mandate the the dams further upstream take similar actions, as well.
    No one is off the hook for this issue. The River associations have to stay the course as well, but want to I believe that they intend to do so, and will.
    For one to say that the ‘dam did not cause the sediment’, shows significant ignorance to reality. The dam has created the ability for toxic amounts of sediment, that otherwise would be naturally handled by a healthy ecosystem in smaller amounts, to collect and deposit in toxic amounts during storm/flood events. FACT!
    I would love to see the day, when I am willing to allow my, now, 7-year old daughter to swim in the waters that I so much enjoyed as a child. Unfortunately, I think there are more politics here than actual concern about this. Sorry to be a skeptic. 55 years of life in Maryland has taught me to be.


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