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Conowingo Dam Agreement Undermined by Muddy Numbers

Conowingo_Dam_Wikimedia Commons.jpg
Conowingo Dam, photo by Wikimedia Commons
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When Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ran for office, he promised to address a major environmental threat just north of the Chesapeake Bay.

The massive Conowingo Dam, over nearly a century of generating electricity from the Susquehanna River, had trapped so much sediment and pollution that its reservoir was filled to the brim and overflowing.

Whenever a major storm hits now, millions of tons of muck are flushed over the dam and into the Bay, smothering grasses and oysters.

“They should have been required to do annual routine dredging at the dam over the last 90 years,” said Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. “So we have a situation right now where the dam is essentially like a loaded cannon that is pointed straight to the bay.”

Governor Hogan pledged to hold the dam’s Chicago-based owner, Exelon, the largest electric utility company in the U.S., responsible for taking care of the problem.

At first, Hogan seemed to keep his promise. In April 2018, as a condition of a federal relicensing process that would allow the dam to operate for another 50 years, Hogan’s Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) issued requirements that would have forced force Exelon to reduce more than 6 million pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution per year flowing over the dam. Or, as an alternative, Exelon could pay $8.6 billion dollars over a half century to fund pollution control projects on upstream farms and other sites.

Then Exelon sued to block the requirements, and the Hogan Administration gave in. In October 2019, the state signed a settlement agreement with Exelon that abandoned the state’s earlier pollution control requirements. Instead of paying $8.6 billion for pollution control efforts, the state said Exelon would now pay about 2 percent as much.

Mark Shaffer, spokesman for MDE, issued a statement that said in part: “When the legal landscape shifted dramatically a few years ago, MDE knew it risked being thrown out of court and getting zero commitment from Exelon to do more to meet our state goals. We chose to drive the best settlement we could, which resulted in a first-ever commitment by the dam owner to do over $200 million worth of environmental improvements.”

Exelon used different numbers, saying in a statement yesterday afternoon that the company would invest $95 million in nutrient pollution control projects as part of “almost $700 million in economic and environmental investments over the life of the license.”

What’s strange about these wildly divergent figures -- $95 million, compared to $200 million or $700 million -- is that they are all much higher than the actual numbers spelled out in the state’s legally-binding settlement agreement with Exelon. That agreement specifies only about $60 million in pollution control projects over 50 years, including zero dollars to remove the sediment behind the dam, which is the real problem.

Betsy Nicholas is Executive Director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. She said she suspects both the state and Exelon are artificially inflating the numbers for political reasons: to make a bad agreement look good to the public.

“I looked at the numbers, and I am no economist,” Nicholas said. “But I did have two economists look at the numbers, as well. And they can’t seem to find any way to calculate the numbers that comes up with the totals that are being provided by MDE and Exelon. So it’s definitely being puffed up and inflated to make it look like a better package than it really is.”

Nicholas is not buying what she thinks is a bum deal for the Chesapeake. So on Thursday, her organization and allies, including the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, Sassafras Riverkeeper, Earthjustice, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, filed a federal lawsuit to try to block the relicensing of the dam.

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The Environment in Focus is independently owned and distributed by Environment in Focus Radio to WYPR and other stations. The program is sponsored by the Abell Foundation. The views expressed are solely Tom Pelton's. You can contact him at pelton.tom@gmail.com.