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Conowingo: Don't draw red line in mud

One can scarcely blame executives at Exelon Corp. for getting a little testy these days when the subject of sediment trapped behind the company’s Conowingo Dam comes up. The dam wasn’t built on the Susquehanna River in order to keep pollution from flowing downstream, it was built to provide affordable electricity to people living in the region — and a low-carbon, atmosphere-friendly source of energy at that. That the hydroelectric generating station now finds itself regarded as a major Chesapeake Bay polluter isn’t quite fair, but it’s also somewhat inescapable.

Recently, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and The Nature Conservancy released a report suggesting that Exelon could afford to kick in a substantial amount of money toward reducing the enormous amount of sediment trapped behind the dam. That sediment is rightly getting scrutinized. While tiny particles of sand, silt and clay are a natural part of the ecosystem, the extraordinary amount that travels down the Susquehanna during or immediately after a major storm clouds the water and causes great harm to aquatic life, particularly to vital underwater grasses.

Development in the Susquehanna basin has made matters much worse as the loss of forests and fields in Pennsylvania and New York has only increased the amount of sediments, as well as harmful nutrients like phosphorus, that end up in the water. The Conowingo (and other smaller dams) helped trap sediments for decades but do so much less now. Today, major storms create a “scouring” effect as sediments trapped behind the dams are stirred up and pushed down river. Might that impact be averted — or at least lessened — if those trapped sediments were physically removed from behind the dam?

That’s the theory behind the environmentalists’ report. And it’s hardly a new thought given Gov. Larry Hogan’s often-expressed interest in the Conowingo. He’s been talking about the Conowingo’s trapped sediments since he first ran for governor, and he highlighted it as recently as this past summer when he announced the state would be test dredging Conowingo sediment with an eye toward finding an affordable way to deal with it. State officials said Friday that they have selected a pair of companies to do a small pilot project, though the details are still being worked out.

How much could Exelon afford to kick in toward such an effort? The report proposes spending $27 million to $44 million per year for remediation. That’s a big chunk of change, particularly given that the company paid not a dime for such efforts in the past. But it’s within Maryland’s right to seek Exelon’s help under the licensing process managed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Under federal law, Exelon is required to obtain a Clean Water Act Water Quality Certification and demonstrate that the Conowingo Dam’s operation meets Maryland’s water quality standards. The Maryland Department of the Environment has given the public has until Jan. 15 to submit written comments regarding that certification.

Where does that leave Exelon? In a statement, company officials said dealing with pollution should be a joint responsibility involving those who are the sources of the sediment, and they are correct. But that doesn’t absolve Exelon of any responsibility. Indeed, an elegant solution might involve upstream ratepayers kicking in for the cost of abatement since they are largely to blame for the pollution. We look forward to hearing from Governor Hogan on the subject, given his desire to promote a business friendly environment. It would be nice to see a plan on the table prior to the certification decision.

Still, it would also be a mistake to get too caught up in vilifying the Conowingo when the real goal is to reduce pollution going into the Susquehanna, the single largest source of freshwater into the Chesapeake, that results largely from poor land use decisions in the watershed. That’s a point environmentalists have made before when they feared Mr. Hogan would use the excuse of Conowingo pollution to avoid more politically unpopular anti-pollution choices, and they shouldn’t abandon it now that there’s a deep-pocketed utility company in their sights. After all, it would also be unwise to make Conowingo power uneconomical given the long-term threat posed by climate change and the coal-fired power plants that generate such a large share of greenhouse gases. That leaves a lot of middle ground. It may not involve a $44 million check from Exelon, but the company clearly has a role to play.

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