Rural, urban areas differ on Bay restoration -- Gazette.Net


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Rural county officials are pointing to pollutant-laden sediment behind the Conowingo Dam as the place efforts should be focused to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

On that point, Environmental Matters Committee Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Dist. 43) of urban Baltimore and the leaders of Dorchester, Caroline, Cecil, Kent, Frederick, Carroll and Allegany counties agree.

But those same rural officials are balking at expensive state mandates that require local governments to develop watershed improvement plans to reduce pollutants running into the Bay.

“The counties want to look at a different way to do the cleanup, starting with the largest sources first,” said Charles “Chip” MacLeod, a lawyer at Funk & Bolton in Chestertown, the firm retained by the seven counties that have organized as the Clean Chesapeake Coalition.

Millions have been spent on measures that have done little to improve the health of the Bay, and the costs being passed down to the counties “are staggering and unaffordable,” MacLeod said.

Each county has paid $25,000 for the law firm to make the argument that attention should turn, instead, to ensuring that sediment and pollutants built up in reservoirs behind the dam that wash into the Bay be removed.

Sediment, particularly the buildup following major storms, has smothered oyster beds and ruined oystering in the upper Bay, Kent County Commissioner Ronald H. Fithian (D) said.

Conowingo Dam, built in 1928, on the Susquehanna River between Cecil and Harford counties, produces hydroelectric power and is owned by Exelon. The firm also owns Baltimore-based Constellation and Baltimore Gas and Electric.

The Bay is regarded almost as an extension of the Susquehanna, which along with its tributaries in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, supply nearly half the fresh water in the Bay.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is reviewing Exelon’s application for a new 46-year license for the dam.

McIntosh, selected last month to lead the Chesapeake Bay Commission for one year, has said her top priority as commission chairwoman is cleaning up sediments behind the dam that damage the Bay.

The commission advises the state legislatures of Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania on their cooperative management of the Bay under the Chesapeake Bay Program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

McIntosh and commission Vice Chairman Ronald E. Miller, a member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives, sent letters last week to FERC and the EPA urging their cooperation in ensuring that the new license includes “provisions for managing, mitigating and removing the massive amount of sediment which has accumulated behind the Conowingo Dam over the past 84 years” and that the dam’s sediment problem is addressed in Bay cleanup plans.

Immediate full dredging — estimated to cost about $60 million, which is said to be more than the annual profit from the dam — is not the only option, and other solutions, including partial dredging and piping out some sediment, are being evaluated, McIntosh said.

But “today nobody is on the hook for dredging that reservoir,” MacLeod said.

“I don’t know whose fault it is,” he added, “but I think before this relicensing takes place, we all need to sit down and solve the problem.”

In an emailed response to questions about options the company is considering for decreasing the risk of sediment spillover and buildup, Exelon did not answer questions about the costs of sediment removal.

Exelon said the dam does not cause sediment.

Sediment behind the dam “originates from other points in the Susquehanna River Watershed,” Exelon spokesman Robert Judge wrote in reply. “The dam has trapped sediment for more than 80 years that would have otherwise flowed into the Chesapeake Bay.”

Although Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources asked FERC to have Exelon say what it would do to keep sediment from washing past the dam as reservoirs fill, the firm has not done so, said Shawn Seaman, manager of the Conowingo project in DNR’s power plant research program.

Some studies have said the reservoirs will be full in 10 to 15 years; others suggest they are already full.

Some core samples of sediment behind the dam have shown 30 percent fine coal, Seaman said. “There’s all kinds of stuff in that sediment we need to get a better handle on,” he said.

Virginia’s commissioners do not see the dam as directly impacting their Bay waters, said Jack Frye, director of the CBC Virginia Office.

But “all agree it’s an issue that needs attention,” said Marel Raub, director of the CBC Pennsylvania Office.

The push and pull between rural and urban Maryland, and among Chesapeake Bay watershed states, is part of a long-running dispute over what is needed to clean up the Chesapeake Bay — and who should pay.

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said sediment behind the dam and local sources of pollution all must be addressed.

“We will not clean up the Bay if we take an either/or approach,” Prost said.

“I do think there is more than one agenda and that the Clean Chesapeake Coalition wants to use the Conowingo Dam as a distraction.”

mhyslop@gazette.net