Maryland's authority to protect the Chesapeake is in jeopardy

Federal legislation would take away some of Maryland's authority to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland and its economy depend on a healthy Chesapeake Bay. Right now, the state is negotiating with energy company Exelon over water quality threats posed by the Conowingo Dam — and who will pay to address them. However, Congress is considering legislation that will take away Maryland's authority to negotiate and allow Exelon to stick state taxpayers with the bill to repair any water quality damage the dam causes.

Proposed federal legislation (The Hydropower Improvement act of 2015) would strip Maryland of its authority to hold hydropower dam owners accountable for water quality violations and end critical protections for fish and wildlife at hydropower dams. This federal power grab would give Maryland's authority to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an obscure agency based in Washington, D.C. that regulates the interstate transmission of natural gas and electricity.

What's at stake for Marylanders? Exelon Corporation is currently seeking a new 46-year license from FERC to operate the Conowingo Dam, located at the head of the bay near the Pennsylvania border. It needs Maryland to certify that the dam's operations will not violate state water quality standards before FERC can grant the license. Right now, our state officials and natural resource agencies have the authority to negotiate for changes to the license that benefit Marylanders and the bay. The hydropower industry would like to change that.

Nearly 200 million tons of sediment are trapped behind Conowingo, and during big storms large quantities of this sediment are flushed into the bay. Maryland is pressing Exelon to agree to clean up the dam before the state will sign off on the new license. If Congress passes the proposed bill, Maryland's authority disappears, and Exelon gets to pass the costs of dealing with the dam's pollution along to taxpayers.

Exelon, which will control about 80 percent of Maryland's electric market now that its merger with Pepco has been approved, is one of the country's largest energy corporations. Exelon is also a member of the National Hydropower Association (NHA), the hydropower industry's trade association. Perhaps not coincidentally, NHA has called for legislation that in practice would weaken federal and state agencies' authority to require hydropower companies to protect water quality and fisheries.

As Marylanders, who do we want in charge of protecting our billon-dollar Chesapeake fisheries, our clean water and our endangered species from the damage caused by hydropower dams? The professional scientists and policymakers at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and the Maryland Department of the Environment, who are accountable to taxpayers and the governor; or FERC, a D.C.-based energy permitting agency that has virtually no accountability to Marylanders and no mandate to protect the Chesapeake or any of the communities that rely on it?

Fortunately, the state of Maryland is fighting back. Gov. Larry Hogan and his administration understand the importance of the Conowingo Dam's Water Quality Certification and are standing up for Maryland and for the Chesapeake Bay by opposing this damaging legislation. Maryland's Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles and Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton recently sent letters to Congress pointing out that the legislation being considered would relegate states to "bystander or second-class status" with regard to protecting water quality. For defending Maryland's right to protect our waters, Governor Hogan deserves our thanks.

Maryland's congressional delegation should join with Governor Hogan in opposing this legislation. Rarely do our senators and members of Congress have to defend the bay from such a blatant attempt to roll back environmental protections. Fifty percent of the bay's fresh water flows down the Susquehanna River and over the Conowingo Dam. The new federal license for Conowingo offers Maryland a once-in-a-lifetime chance to bring the dam into compliance with modern laws and standards for environmental protection. Maryland cannot afford to lose its authority to protect the Chesapeake Bay from Conowingo's pollution.

Bob Irvin, an Olney resident, is president and CEO of American Rivers, a national conservation group; his email is birvin@americanrivers.org.

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