(ANNAPOLIS, MD)—Today, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the relicensing of the Conowingo Hydroelectric Project, effectively ratifying Maryland’s settlement offer with Exelon to enable the utility to continue operating Conowingo Dam.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) had previously urged FERC to reject the proposed settlement because it fails to adequately address water pollution issues associated with the dam’s operations.
FERC’s approval provides the dam’s operator, Exelon, with a license to continue operating the dam for the next five decades.
CBF continues to believe Maryland should have pursued a settlement with Exelon that would have directed the bulk of the settlement proceeds to reduce pollution upstream—primarily in Pennsylvania—where most of the pollution that flows through the dam is generated.
The Conowingo Dam affects the flow and amount of pollutants that enter the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna River. Previously, the dam’s reservoir trapped Bay pollutants such as phosphorus and sediment, however that reservoir is now full. Because of this, heavy rainstorms cause scour events during which heavy flows of water wash sediment, debris, and pollution from behind the dam into the lower Susquehanna River and ultimately the Bay. This results in high amounts of pollution flowing into the Bay in a short period, rather than gradually, which can overwhelm the Bay’s natural pollution mitigation systems, such as underwater grasses. These pollutants flowing through and being scoured from behind the dam fuel algal blooms that cause dead zones devoid of oxygen in the Bay—areas uninhabitable for marine life.
Maryland’s 2015 Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment determined that, on average, 20 percent of the sediment that enters the Bay during storm events comes from behind the dam. Chesapeake Bay Program researchers modeling future water quality impacts project the dam will become a source of pollution in the Bay by 2050 as climate change causes more intense storms.
CBF believes Exelon should be responsible for this pollution, but the settlement approved as part of the relicensing today is significantly flawed because:
- it enshrines Maryland’s waiving of its rights to issue a water quality certification for the dam as well as a pollution discharge permit. Both regulatory tools could have been used by the state to require Exelon to reduce pollution from the dam.
- the settlement does not require Exelon to reduce pollution, instead the company will be contributing funds to Maryland’s Clean Water Fund. However, money from this fund is not required to be spent to mitigate the dam’s pollution.
- the projects Exelon agreed to fund as part of the settlement are vague and it’s not clear where, when, or how these projects would be connected to the dam’s operation.
CBF found only about $52 million of the $200 million settlement would be directed to defined water quality improvement projects, despite Exelon’s ability to finance the projects. A 2017 economic study commissioned by CBF and The Nature Conservancy determined Exelon could provide $27 million to $44 million per year to reduce the dam’s environmental impact while still generating a profit.
In response to today’s vote by FERC, CBF Vice President of Environmental Protection and Restoration Alison Prost issued the following statement:
“We remain disappointed in the Maryland Department of the Environment’s decision to surrender powerful regulatory tools the state could have used to reduce Conowingo Dam-related pollution. Boaters, anglers, waterfront property owners, and other Chesapeake Bay users have seen the debris and trash that litters surface water following heavy storms when the dam operators open the flood gates. What’s not as visible is the pollution surging through the dam in the water that fuels algal blooms and in turn chokes marine life in the Bay. Today’s approval of this ineffective agreement is not the long-term solution to this problem. This agreement is a missed opportunity to require Exelon to mitigate the dam’s pollution impacts through the funding or installation of new pollution reduction practices in Pennsylvania where the practices would be the most cost effective.”