Maryland leaders call upon Conowingo Dam owner to do more to protect Bay [Letter]

After the recent record rainfall for July, the waters of the Susquehanna River rush through the 17 open spill gates at the Conowingo Dam Thursday morning, July 28. Total gates opened went to 20 later that day, after which the river flow through the dam began to subside.
After the recent record rainfall for July, the waters of the Susquehanna River rush through the 17 open spill gates at the Conowingo Dam Thursday morning, July 28. Total gates opened went to 20 later that day, after which the river flow through the dam began to subside. (Matt Button/The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The following letter from Secretary Mark Belton of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Secretary Ben Grumbles of the Maryland Department of the Environment was sent to Christopher Crane, CEO of Conowingo Dam operator Exelon Corporation. A copy was provided. Editor.

Dear Mr. Crane,


As Secretaries of the Maryland Departments of the Environment (MOE) and Natural Resources (DNR), implementing Governor Larry Hogan's vision for a cleaner, healthier Chesapeake Bay that will be preserved for future generations is our shared guiding principle and top priority.

The heavy rainfall and storm conditions experienced across Maryland over the past several weeks — setting records in some areas — necessitated the opening of more than twenty floodgates at the Conowingo Dam in Darlington, Md., which is licensed and operated by Exelon Generation Company LLC. We appreciate Exelon's coordination with the State of Maryland and local governments to ensure that all possible precautions were taken to safeguard the residents and communities surrounding the dam.


However, while the immediate flooding threat has passed, the massive amounts of sediment and debris that flowed through the opened floodgates is now having a detrimental and dangerous impact on downstream waterways across the watershed. This pollution is a threat to our environment and a serious danger to wildlife, boaters, and swimmers.

As the dam's operator, Exelon has a critical role to play in a comprehensive strategy for Bay restoration. As you are aware, Exelon's application for a 50-year federal license renewal for the operation of the Conowingo Dam requires the company to obtain a Clean Water Act, Section 401 Water Quality Certification from MOE. MOE issued a certification with special conditions on April 27, 2018, which included requirements for Exelon to reduce water pollution that flows from the dam to the lower Susquehanna River and, eventually, the Bay.

In addition to other critical pollution reduction actions and measures to improve conditions for aquatic life, the certification requires Exelon to improve its operation and maintenance to remove sediment and debris to ensure cleaner water supplies downstream after a large storm. Conducting a study on the feasibility of installing and operating a solar-powered trash collection wheel, similar to those used in the Baltimore Harbor, was also included.

Unfortunately, Exelon has to date refused to accept these conditions, and is currently pursuing legal action to circumvent its environmental responsibilities. However, as the legal process is ongoing, the immediate crisis of hazardous debris in our waterways is impacting communities across the state and requires swift action. In addition to the serious ecological threat to the Bay, this situation has resulted in the cancellation of significant events, like the B.A.S.S. Elite Fishing Tournament in the Upper Bay and the Governor's Cup Yacht Race hosted by St. Mary's College, which is having a detrimental impact on Maryland's economy and tourism industry.

Our agencies are working around the clock to clear navigable waterways, but the state simply does not have the resources to clear all of the pollution that flowed through the dam last week. DNR, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and U.S. Coast Guard vessels and crews have been working hard to clear debris and repair or replace navigation markers displaced by the debris.

Additionally, Maryland Park Service teams and volunteers have been clearing debris from the shores of impacted public lands, like Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis. DNR has also issued grants to several local jurisdictions via the Waterway Improvement Fund for debris recovery efforts.

We are writing to make a direct appeal to Exelon to join in these efforts. Whether through providing resources, personnel, and/or equipment to assist with the cleanup process, or providing reimbursement to the state for cleanup operations, we are calling on Exelon to partner with us to mitigate the damage caused by these storms and subsequent opening of the Conowingo Dam floodgates.

Be assured that we are aware -as Governor Hogan has forcefully pointed out that much of this pollution and debris originated in upstream states and that, without proper operation and maintenance, the Conowingo Dam exacerbates the flow of pollution and debris into the Bay.

The Hogan Administration has consistently called on upstream states like Pennsylvania and New York and all Bay states to do their fair share to improve water quality, including the development of a Conowingo Watershed Implementation Plan, and the governor will be delivering that message directly to their representatives at the upcoming Chesapeake Executive Council meeting Tuesday, August 7. But this is a critical moment requiring all hands on deck to ensure the fallout from this storm doesn't turn back the incredible progress Maryland has made in restoring our precious Chesapeake Bay, which recently received its highest water quality rating since measurement began 33 years ago.

Maryland will continue to lead on this issue. We remain committed to successful implementation of the Water Quality Certification, to holding upstream polluters accountable, and to launching a restoration economy based on cost-effective public private partnerships throughout the watershed. Together, we can create a stronger and healthier Chesapeake Bay for future generations.


Ben Grumbles


Mark Belton

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