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Chesapeake Bay Foundation files to intervene in Conowingo Dam re-licensing

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed Tuesday to intervene in the re-licensing of the hydropower facility at the Conowingo Dam, which they said is gradually losing its capacity to trap pollutants that enter the bay.

The intervention will allow the foundation to comment to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as the agency looks to negotiate conditions for the dam with Exelon Corp., which owns the hydropower plant. It also allows foundation officials to sue in federal court if they are not satisfied with the license.

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"It gets us a seat at the table," said Beth McGee, the foundation's senior water quality scientist. "Nobody wants to go to court over this."

The dam is located in Maryland, connecting Cecil and Harford counties at the lower end of the Susquehanna River, the largest river feeding the Chesapeake Bay. In the mid-1990s, experts found the Conowingo and two other dams along the Susquehanna trapped about 2 percent of the nitrogen, 40 percent of the phosphorus and 70 percent of the suspended sediment that would have entered the bay from the river, according to the foundation.

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But the capacity of the Conowingo Dam to trap sediment has diminished in recent years, foundation officials said. Also, pollutants, such as phosphorus, nitrogen and sediment, escape through the dam on a daily basis and especially during hurricanes and storms, they said.

Tom Zolper, Maryland communications director for the foundation, said there is no specific plan the foundation thinks should be implemented for the dam as of yet. He said the solutions would likely be a mix of dredging out some of the current pollutants in the dam to increase the amount it could trap, among other solutions.

He said there also needs to be an effort to ensure that pollutants are not entering the Susquehanna River upstream from New York or Pennsylvania. He said the issue is being studied by the foundation and other groups.

"There is no silver bullet that we would hope to arrive at," Zolper said, in terms of solutions for the dam.

The foundation also wants the license to address restoring safe passage of various fish from the Susquehanna into the bay, which they said is crucial to recovering fish populations.

The move comes as stormwater management requirements in Maryland are becoming more stringent, causing concern among some municipalities and counties.

Carroll is one of nine jurisdictions in the state that was required to start a stormwater management fee under a 2012 law to pay for stormwater upgrades. The commissioners decided not to implement a fee, and pay for the upgrades with existing funds.

The Carroll County Board of Commissioners also voted in November 2012 to join the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, which seeks cost-effective solutions to restoring the bay. The coalition, which includes six other counties, blames much of the problems concerning the Chesapeake on pollution coming through the Conowingo Dam from the Susquehanna, especially during storms.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, said the Conowingo is a major issue that should be addressed. He said the need to deal with pollution from the Susquehanna was more cost-effective than the stormwater management regulations passed by Maryland legislators.

"I want to see us start using some business sense and apply some real science and real economics," he said.

The coalition filed in June to intervene in the re-licensing as well.

Foundation officials said that while the Conowingo Dam is a major issue in the Bay's recovery, it should not distract from improving stormwater management systems that will improve the bay and other local bodies of water. They complain the issue has been used as a distraction by anti-tax officials.

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"The licensing issue is one of the many solutions," McGee said in terms of the Bay's problems.

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