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St. Mary’s County government was asked Tuesday to be the eighth member of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a fledgling association of counties that wants to change the scope of the federal and state mandated Watershed Implementation Plan.

It’s likely there are three commissioner votes for St. Mary’s to join, but Commission President Jack Russell, the board’s lone Democrat, made it clear he did not support the idea.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s plan for the Chesapeake Bay watershed is to reduce the levels of nutrients and sediment by 2025, by clamping down on runoff from farms and urban areas, and upgrading septic systems and sewage treatment plants at significant cost to local governments.

What is not being considered in the cleanup plan is the decades of sediment stuck behind the Conowingo Dam, which holds back the Susquehanna River between Cecil and Harford counties. The dam and its full load of sediment behind it are “an obvious omission that needs to be addressed,” Paul Smith, Frederick County commissioner and committee member of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, told the St. Mary’s commissioners.

Charles “Chip” MacLeod, attorney with Funk and Bolton representing the coalition, showed the board a satellite photo of the Chesapeake Bay after Tropical Storm Lee on Sept. 13, 2011.

A sediment plume extended 100 miles past the Conowingo Dam through the Chesapeake to the mouth of the Potomac River, after more than a foot of rain fell in many locations in the watershed.

“This happens more and more” after rainfalls, MacLeod said.

“You have to look at the state of the Conowingo Reservoir,” he said, which was formed in 1928 behind a hydroelectric dam.

“The scientists say the trapping capacity of that reservoir is gone,” he said, and the Susquehanna River, which drains part of Pennsylvania and New York is the “single largest source of pollution coming into the Chesapeake Bay.”

MacLeod said the state of Maryland is concerned with upgrading sewage treatment plants, which he said only contribute 1 percent of the nutrient load into the Chesapeake, and septic systems, which contribute 2 to 4 percent of the nutrient load into the bay.

Seventy percent of those living in St. Mary’s use septic systems, and the state passed laws last year to limit the number of new septic systems.

Commissioner Dan Morris (R) referred to correspondence with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation late last year and said no testing has been done on the septic system load from St. Mary’s. “I’m not disputing science. I’m disputing the way to fix the problem,” he said.

The Clean Chesapeake Coalition, so far made up of Dorchester, Cecil, Kent, Frederick, Allegany, Caroline and Carroll counties, has three objectives, MacLeod said — to bring attention to the Conowingo Dam, to rework the coalition’s individual county watershed plans and elevate debate “on the agenda to clean the bay,” he said. “Talking about septics is a colossal waste of time.”

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) wrote to the St. Mary’s County commissioners Jan. 3, “I am troubled to hear some local leaders suggest that we delay work on water quality restoration due to the potential impact of sediments behind the Conowingo Dam on the Susquehanna River.

The governor continued, “Maryland’s streams, rivers and bay tributaries are suffering from the same type of pollution as the Susquehanna River. Cleaning up the Susquehanna only solves part of the bay’s problem.”

“Just because the upstream states control large portions of the bay Watershed and contribute a large share of the nutrients and sediment to the bay does not absolve Maryland from controlling pollution from our state,” wrote Robert Summers, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment on Dec. 26 to state leaders.

The state of Maryland is planning to spend $14.5 billion over the next 12 years, MacLeod said, on the Watershed Implementation Plan, established in 2010. That is in addition to efforts before. “We’ve been at this for 40 years about saving the bay,” MacLeod said, “and we are really no better off.” He cited the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s latest state of the bay grade of D-plus.

“It’s unfortunate government at higher levels has pushed this down onto the counties,” said Commissioner Cindy Jones (R).

The coalition suggests getting involved in the federal relicensing process for Exelon, the owner of the Conowingo Dam, to assign responsibility for the sediment stuck behind the dam. Perhaps $1 billion could be diverted from the Watershed Implementation Plan to dredge that material, MacLeod said.

It would cost St. Mary’s County $25,000 to join the coalition.

Russell said after the meeting that was not a good use of public money.

“We’ve got good people” at the Maryland Association of Counties, he said. “We can deal with this. All we end up doing is splintering the group” if St. Mary’s joins this coalition.

During the meeting, Russell said, “You’re out here proffering to sell your services to the counties to be another lobbying effort to the counties.”

MacLeod said his statements were based on science.

“I’m not here just saying these things,” he said.

“So you’re basing your science against the other science,” Russell said.

jbabcock@somdnews.com