In a press release dated June 18, the Clean Chesapeake Coalition announced that on Saturday, June 22, the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will host its 61st Emmy Awards in Bethesda, Maryland. Among many worthy nominees are producers Thomas and Matthew Locastro of Locastro Design, LLC for The Conowingo Factor, which was funded by the CCC and distributed by Sinclair Broadcast Group. This is the fifth nomination the Locastro brothers have received for their documentary work and the second collaboration between the two and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition (CCC).
It was the summer of 2014 when the Locastro brothers discovered the situation at the Conowingo Dam. “We had never heard about the Conowingo Dam before, much less all of the controversy surrounding it. That’s what made it even more shocking when we learned that Exelon was about to renew the Dam’s 46-year operating permit,” says Matthew. “At that time, my brother and I were thinking about starting a video production business together and this seemed like a great project to kick things off,” explained Thomas. Working at breakneck speed, the two conducted interviews over a three-day period and 19 days later, released The Conowingo Scandal on YouTube. According to Matthew, “we weren’t really sure what to expect with taking on the project. We just knew we wanted there to be a bigger conversation about the issue. We were amazed at how fast things ended up taking off.” Within weeks, their 2014 video had electrified an online debate, received national coverage with the outlet Think Progress, and even got them an audience and screening with then-Gubernatorial candidate, Larry Hogan, and his team of advisors.
Since that time, the Locastro brothers have built a thriving documentary production company that has won a regional Murrow, three Emmys and has had films featured at various domestic and international film festivals. Their documentary, Saber Rock, was released in theaters and became one of 77 films that competed for the 2018 Short Documentary Oscar. This earned them a 7-minute interview on CNN. Thomas says, “As we developed the craft of documentary filmmaking, we would sometimes think about our first video on the Conowingo Dam and wonder if we would ever get a chance to remake it. We were thrilled when we got the opportunity to partner with both the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and Sinclair Broadcast Group to help get this story in front of even more people.”
Both the original and The Conowingo Factor were commissioned by the CCC whose member counties have, since its inception in 2012, advocated for prudent, fiscally responsible strategies to improve the water quality of the Chesapeake Bay. To that end, the CCC has been drawing attention to the threat it sees is posed by the Dam, whose reservoir has reached dynamic equilibrium and is no longer effectively trapping nutrient-laden sediment from loading into the Bay. The CCC has been at the forefront of this issue for years, long before the current surge of interest in the threat the infilled reservoir poses to Bay health, back when certain special interest groups were still calling the impacts of the Conowingo Dam a “red herring” in the context of saving the Bay. Says CCC Chairman, Ron Fithian, “Anyone who was around when Hurricane Agnes hit in 1972 knows that it signaled the end of the oysters in the Upper Bay. Though they didn’t end up having to use the explosives they placed in case they had to blow the Dam, the amount of sediment that came through those open spill gates smothered oyster bars and other aquatic life that still hasn’t recovered… almost 50 years and billions of restoration dollars later.”
The Conowingo Dam is currently owned by Exelon Generation Company, a Fortune 100 company with 2018 revenues of $35.9 billion dollars. Since prior to the Dam’s operating license expiring in 2014, Exelon has been seeking a new, 46-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Part of this process calls for a Water Quality Certification from the State of Maryland under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act. Serious concerns voiced by the State resulted in Exelon voluntarily withdrawing its application and re-submitting it for several years running, while they sought to address the issues raised through the process. In April 2018, the State of Maryland was finally able to issue a Water Quality Certification but did so with conditions, as is their federally mandated right through their jurisdiction over the navigable waters of the State. Exelon responded by suing Maryland in two courts and administratively.
CCC member counties and their county officials remain disappointed at the lengths Exelon is willing to take to shirk environmental responsibility associated with the operation of this lucrative power station. This private, for-profit corporation claims that the Maryland Department of the Environment’s qualifications for a Water Quality Certification are “impracticable.” Meanwhile, Maryland counties with annual budgets that are a tiny fraction of Exelon’s revenues are spending enormous amounts of taxpayer dollars to develop and implement their Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and help Maryland meet its Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) goals. At the same time, local economies of Bayside counties are hurt by the Conowingo Factor impacts on the seafood and tourism industries.
Last week the Chesapeake Bay Program, quoting the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), reported that in the spring of this year, 2019, the Susquehanna delivered 102.6 million pounds of nitrogen to the Bay. To put that into perspective, consider that the Maryland Department of the Environment calculates that a single conventional septic system releases 23.2 lbs. of nitrogen annually into the groundwater; if they are upgraded, this figure is cut in half. There are approximately 420,000 septic systems in Maryland. Based on the USGS figures, this means that in a few months, the Susquehanna delivered the same amount of nitrogen that 4,422,414 conventional septic systems, or 2,211,2017 upgraded systems, deliver in a year. How many billions are we spending to upgrade septic while ignoring the upstream problem posed by decades of pollution collecting behind the Dam waiting for spill gates to open?
Well-supported by science and enforceable under the law, the Hogan Administration has embraced the once-in-a-generation opportunity to impose licensing conditions requiring the owner of Conowingo Dam to properly manage the vast quantities of nutrients, sediment and other contaminants that are accumulated in the reservoir above the Dam and scoured into the Bay, not just during major storm events but now, with increasing frequency, because of the loss of trapping capacity in the reservoir. The CCC remains supportive of these crucial efforts and to that end, in March of this year filed a Motion to Intervene in the Petition for Declaratory Order by Exelon Generation Company now pending before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). County officials realize that, in the event of a 25-year storm (which has an 80% chance of occurring over the life of the new operating license), the efforts financed through billions of taxpayer dollars and charitable contributions will be as dead as the oyster reefs that flourished in the Upper Bay before they were smothered by the sediment scoured from behind the Conowingo Dam during Hurricane Agnes. In the event that The Conowingo Factor wins an Emmy later this month, it may provide a further boost to the State’s efforts to require that Exelon not only receives lucrative benefits from the public waters of the State, but also plays a part in protecting this valuable resource.