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Environmentalists ask Exelon to pay for Conowingo sediment cleanup

Water runs through Conowingo Dam hydroelectric plant during an open house.
Water runs through Conowingo Dam hydroelectric plant during an open house. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A group of environmentalists released a study Tuesday suggesting the owner of Conowingo Dam on the lower Susquehanna River can afford to help reduce or counteract the pollution that flows past the dam, harming Chesapeake Bay health.

But the company, Chicago-based Exelon Corp., said the analysis is flawed. Moreover, Exelon said it shouldn’t have to bear responsibility for dirt and rocks that wash into the bay across hundreds of miles.

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“Most of the sediment that impacts the Bay comes from upstream sources,” Exelon officials said in a statement. “As such, the regional sources of sediment across the basin should take joint responsibility for the issue, not a single company or entity.”

Excessive amounts of sediments are among the chief detriments to the Chesapeake’s health, clouding waters and starving underwater plants of sunlight. More sediment has been washing into the bay in recent decades as development and pavement have spread.

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Gov. Larry Hogan announces plans to remove sediment at the Conowingo Dam. (Baltimore Sun video)

The Conowingo has long trapped much of the sediment that flows down the Susquehanna and would otherwise reach the Chesapeake. But it has reached its capacity, and environmentalists and state officials have been working since last year to find a way to dredge behind the dam or otherwise find a way to catch sediment.

The study, commissioned by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy, studied the Conowingo’s revenues and expenses and estimates of Susquehanna flow rates and electricity prices. Researchers from the consulting firm Energy and Environmental Economics concluded that Exelon could afford to spend $27 million to $44 million a year on efforts to reduce or counteract sediment and other pollution.

Gov. Larry Hogan announced plans for a test project to dredge some of the sediment trapped behind the Conowingo Dam.

“Exelon has the responsibility and revenue to pay for its share of the solution,” bay foundation President Will Baker said in a statement.

Exelon officials said they are still reviewing the study, but added that “its estimates of the dam’s future revenues and profitability are based on a number of flawed assumptions and theories.”

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State officials earlier this year began testing removal of the sediment, but no long-term solution has been announced.

Note: An earlier version misstated the environmentalists’ requests of Exelon. The Sun regrets the error.

Gov. Larry Hogan next month will seek a contractor to deal with sediment piled up behind the Conowingo dam, and his administration plans to deploy all the leverage it has to limit the pollution spilling into the Cheasapeake Bay.

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