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Hogan announcements on Conowingo Dam draw bipartisan local praise

Gov. Larry Hogan speaks at Conowingo Dam Press Conference - July 7, 2016

Gov. Larry Hogan is asking the private sector for ideas on how to prevent massive reservoirs of sediment from spilling over the Conowingo Dam and polluting the Chesapeake Bay, a decision that at least one Carroll official believes will reduce the tax burden on local residents.

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, also credited the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, of which Carroll has been part, for bringing the issue to the public's attention, though Hogan didn't specifically mention the group during his news conference on the issue Thursday.

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Warning in his remarks that years of progress at cleaning up waterways "could easily be wiped out" by a single hurricane inundating the Susquehanna River, the governor announced he is also gathering various state agencies in a new work group to oversee the issue.

Carroll County will remain a member of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition after the county commissioners voted to do so Thursday, with the provision that they will work with the other member counties to identify focus areas the coalition should be spending their time and money on.

Millions of tons of sediment have accumulated behind the Conowingo Dam, the lowest of a series on the Susquehanna and the last barrier between much of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the waterway itself. The dam's sediment reservoirs are at capacity, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that dredging them would cost billions of dollars.

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"Simply put: This is a growing problem. It's getting worse, and it must be solved," Hogan said Thursday at the news conference overlooking the river.

Hogan said he plans to issue a request for information in September, asking private companies for their ideas on ways to efficiently and effectively dredge behind the Conowingo and reuse the dredged material.

Rothschild, who has long lobbied for addressing the Conowingo Dam as a source of pollution through his work with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and who was present at the news conference, was extremely pleased by Hogan's announcement.

In January, Rothschild used his State of the County address to lay out the case that numerous federal agencies were misleading the public about the role of the dam in polluting the bay.

Hogan announcements on Conowingo Dam draw bipartisan local praise
(Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

"It was a gratifying day for the Clean Chesapeake Coalition and for people that care about the Chesapeake Bay," he said.

"The Governor met with the Coalition for 30 minutes prior to the press conference in what he referred to as his first Conowingo Dam Summit, and explicitly thanked the Clean Chesapeake Coalition for 'educating' the public about the sediment problem from the dam," he later said in an email.

A spokeswoman for the governor could not be reached Thursday to discuss the role the Clean Chesapeake Coalition played in the governor's plans for the Conowingo Dam.

Although Carroll County is landlocked, Rothschild said he believes addressing the dam will eventually alleviate some of the tax burden placed on all counties through requirements for things such as increased stormwater management facilities.

"If we can dredge the dam and intercept more of the pollution up at the dam, then it reduces the amount of pollution we have to take out at the county level and therefore will reduce the cost to county taxpayers," he said. "Carroll County is going to spend something like $50 million over the next five years on stormwater management. That will take out 5 tons of pollution. During the last tropical storm 19 million tons of pollution flowed through the Conowingo Dam."

In his remarks, Hogan also noted that sediment pollution is not just a Maryland problem and that he would like to find ways to persuade neighboring states such as Pennsylvania to help more, another proposal Rothschild fully endorses.

"A recalibration of pollution loads assigned to Maryland could save counties billions of dollars," he said.

Sharing in Rothschild's enthusiasm for addressing the Conowingo Dam is Neil Ridgely, a resident of Finksburg, despite his having been a vocal opponent of Rothschild's efforts with the Clean Chesapeake Coalition. In an interview, Ridgely pointed out that the Chesapeake Bay Program has also pointed to the Conowingo as a source of pollution that needs to be dealt with.

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Although Hogan did not reference the Clean Chesapeake Coalition in his remarks at the news conference, he did note the work of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Maryland Departments of the Environment, Natural Resources and Planning, which number among the nine agencies that will be included in the governor's newly minted work group.

"There is a real problem with sediment on the Conowingo, it's one of many problems, but it is a huge one," Ridgely said. "I am pleased to hear that the governor has also set things in motion to possibly solve the problem."

Ridgely, like Hogan and Rothschild, would also like to see Pennsylvania shoulder more of the burden of protecting the Chesapeake. The area he continues to disagree with Rothschild on is Carroll County's participation in the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, to which the county had contributed a total of $107,250 in dues as of January. The county approved another $25,000 in dues for fiscal year 2017 during the spring budget process.

"We are the only county on the 'western shore' of Maryland that pays $25,000 in dues to the Clean Chesapeake Coalition," Ridgely said. "I am still concerned that we are basically throwing $25,000 a year away on that organization which is a fraud; it's just a front for a group of lawyers in Baltimore."

Commissioner Richard Rothschild, R-District 4, used his five-minute State of the County time slot to address issues in another part of the state, but he said are still affecting Carroll taxpayers.

Through direct inquiries and Public Information Act filings, Ridgely determined that the Clean Chesapeake Coalition has no staff of its own and essentially consists only of the Baltimore law firm Funk and Bolton. He believes the tax money Carroll has sent to the coalition has largely been a waste, given that other organizations have also identified the dam as a problem, but now that the governor has taken up the cause Ridgely thinks that "there certainly is no further reason for Carroll to pay another $25,000 in dues into the organization."

Rothschild disagrees, and strongly.

"I specifically asked the governor what he wanted us to do, and said he needed us to 'continue to do what we are doing,'" he said. "The Clean Chesapeake Coalition remains the only organization in Maryland ensuring that science and economics play a pre-eminent role in addressing bay cleanup in a way that protects Maryland taxpayers."

The Baltimore Sun Staff Writers Scott Dance and Erin Cox contributed to this story.

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