Saturday 20 April 2019

In a new petition, Exelon is seeking to operate dam without state license, which groups say would create dangerous precedent

(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper Association, represented by Earthjustice, filed a motion to intervene in a federal agency proceeding between the State of Maryland and Exelon Corporation over the relicensing of the Conowingo Dam. Through a new petition to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), Exelon is seeking their 50-year license to operate the Conowingo without having to comply with the nutrient and sediment reductions called for by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) through the 401 Water Quality Certification (WQC) process; the groups are intervening to ensure this does not happen, which would create a dangerous precedent both in Maryland and across the country.

“Once again, Exelon is clearly attempting to avoid any responsibility for the cleanup related to Conowingo,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “Exelon profits from operating the dam on the Susquehanna River, an important resource for so many people in our region. Their continued efforts to shirk responsibility for preventing pollution show they are not acting in the public’s interest.”

Exelon owns and operates the dam. In order to receive a new 50-year federal license for the dam, the State of Maryland must certify that the dam’s operations will not adversely impact water quality under the Clean Water Act.

In its petition, Exelon is relying on a recent decision in Hoopa Valley Tribe v. FERC, which found that state certification requirements can be waived if the state does not act upon the license request within one year. Because MDE did not issue its certification until 2018, after the original request for certification process began in 2014, Exelon is arguing that they do not have to comply with the requirements to help reduce pollution.

However, Waterkeepers Chesapeake and Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper argue that this is a flawed interpretation of the Hoopa Valley decision, as the delay in issuing the certification was due to Exelon’s failure to provide sufficient information to MDE. They warn that efforts to clean up local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay would be seriously hampered if the courts rule in Exelon’s favor.

“There were several circumstances in the Hoopa Valley case that the court took into account which have absolutely no bearing in this case between Exelon and MDE,” said Ted Evgeniadis, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper. “We are intervening in this proceeding to urge the federal government to do the right thing for clean water and for the public by ensuring Exelon does its fair share in preventing pollution.”

The Conowingo Dam was completed in 1928 and, since that time, it has been trapping sediment and nutrient pollution from the Susquehanna River and its 27,000-square-mile drainage area. Sediment is one of the three key pollutants, along with nitrogen and phosphorus, that is regulated under the federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, known as the TMDL.

Scientists have concluded that the reservoir behind the dam is now at capacity and cannot trap any more sediment. After large storms, powerful floodwaters can scoop out or “scour” the stored sediment behind the dam and send that downstream to the Chesapeake Bay in the form of pollution. Scientists say large storms and heavy rain events are happening more frequently due to climate change, which means the risk of a catastrophic storm continues to increase.

“Simply put, we will not meet our Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals if we do not address the pollution from Conowingo Dam,” added Nicholas. “If Exelon is allowed to continue operating the dam without doing its part to reduce pollution, the consequences for the Bay in the next 50 years could be catastrophic.” 

Media Contact: Betsy Nicholas, Waterkeepers Chesapeake, 202-423-0504

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Bill would help implement the Phosphorus Management Tool, improve industrial agriculture permitting and reinstate Eastern Shore water quality monitors

ANNAPOLIS, MD – The Maryland Senate voted 32-15 today to approve SB 546, a bill that would give the state more information about agriculture practices, manure transport and water quality on the Eastern Shore. It would also change the discharge permitting process for constructing new industrial agriculture Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) to ensure more transparency and discontinue the decades-long waiver of permit fees. 

“We need to collect better data and ensure we are enforcing the laws we have to reduce pollution,” said Senator Paul Pinsky (D-22), lead sponsor of SB 546 and chairman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “Most Maryland farmers are doing their part to protect waterways, but the fact is that agriculture remains the single, largest source of pollution to the Chesapeake Bay. We need to make sure the entire system is working effectively so we can protect clean water.”

Maryland has several laws on the books to help prevent pollution from agriculture, including the Phosphorus Management Tool (PMT) regulations passed in 2015 to stop overapplication of manure on farm fields. However, advocates say that progress to reduce pollution is hamstrung by a lack of useful data, as well as a dysfunctional permitting system.

“The Chesapeake Bay is showing signs of progress, but many threats remain,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “The PMT and other nutrient management laws are our best chance to reduce pollution from agriculture to meet our Bay cleanup goals, so we must ensure we have the data we need to make these programs work effectively.”

SB 546 would help the industry utilize the PMT, improve the Department of Agriculture’s reporting of manure transport on current state forms and update the permitting timeline and fees for CAFOs.

The bill also would restore water quality monitoring at nine sites on the Eastern Shore which had been discontinued in 2013 due to budget cuts at the Department of Natural Resources.

“This region of the state has the highest soil phosphorus levels in the state, and it has a disproportionate impact on Bay water quality,” said Courtney Bernhardt, director of research at the Environmental Integrity Project. “We need monitoring data in this area so we can make informed decisions about the most effective policies to reduce pollution and protect our waterways.”

The bill now moves on to the House of Delegates. HB 904, the cross-file bill sponsored by Delegate Vaughn Stewart (D-19), has not yet moved to the House floor for a vote.

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The Maryland Clean Agriculture Coalition is working to improve Maryland waterways and protect public health by reducing pollution, and increasing transparency and accountability, from agriculture and other associated sources of water degradation.

Its partners include: Anacostia Riverkeeper, Audubon Naturalist Society, Assateague Coastal Trust, Blue Water Baltimore, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Clean Water Action, Environmental Action Center, Environment Maryland, Environmental Integrity Project, Gunpowder Riverkeeper, League of Women Voters of Maryland, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Potomac Riverkeeper, Rachel Carson Council, ShoreRivers, Sierra Club, Maryland Chapter and Waterkeepers Chesapeake.

Good news! The Sediment and Erosion Reporting Act (House Bill 703)​ has passed the House and Senate. We now need Governor Hogan to sign it. Send an email urging him to sign this important bill that will allow for better annual reporting and, ultimately, enforcement on stormwater pollution related to construction activities.​

Stormwater runoff remains the fastest growing source of pollution to our local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. The largest component of stormwater runoff pollution is dirt. There are laws on the books to regulate polluted runoff, but the question is whether or not they are being enforced. South Riverkeeper Jesse Iliff has been working on the Sediment and Erosion Reporting Act (House Bill 703) that would require the 23 jurisdictions in Maryland that enforce their own sediment and erosion control laws to report on those efforts and bring some sunshine to a process that many members of the public know next to nothing about. A report last year shows that current enforcement efforts of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) are lacking.

The Sediment and Erosion Reporting Act (House Bill 703) would allow for better annual reporting and, ultimately, enforcement on stormwater pollution related to construction activities. The Act would require local counties and municipalities to report annually the quantity, nature, and amount of fines assessed for any violations related to our sediment and erosion control laws to MDE. The Act would also allow for increased transparency by requiring the reported information to be posted on MDE’s website.

Better reporting and increased public transparency will provide for better accountability and, as a result, cleaner waterways. The Act has passed the House and Senate and just needs the Governor to sign it. Use the form below to send an email today!