Maryland officials ask Conowingo Dam owner Exelon to help in 'critical moment' for Chesapeake Bay pollution

Even as Conowingo Dam owner Exelon Corp. is suing Maryland and denying responsibility for pollution that flows down the Susquehanna River, state environmental officials appealed directly to the company Monday in a letter seeking help in "a critical moment" for the Chesapeake Bay.

Mark Belton and Ben Grumbles, the state’s secretaries of natural resources and the environment, respectively, wrote a letter to Exelon CEO Christopher Crane asking the company to pitch in with bay cleanup efforts after record July rainfall sent a surge of trash and debris into waterways.


The state officials called it “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.”

Exelon officials responded by saying they would donate $25,000 to the Chesapeake Bay Trust and offer their employees and contractors to help in debris cleanup.


“Any suggestion that we are seeking to circumvent our environmental responsibility is both factually and legally inaccurate,” wrote John Barnes, president of Exelon Power, in a response to Belton and Grumbles.

The back-and-forth comes ahead of potentially tense discussions about what states across the Chesapeake Bay are and are not doing to help clean up the estuary.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot decried a surge of debris and sediment flowing into bay from upstream states after recent heavy rainstorms.

The Chesapeake Executive Council, whose members include the governors of six bay watershed states, the mayor of Washington, D.C., and the Environmental Protection Agency’s director, is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Baltimore. Gov. Larry Hogan is serving as the group’s chairman this year.

Last week, Hogan called on Pennsylvania and New York to “take responsibility” for the pollution they send down the Susquehanna, comments that could cause strained discussions at the meeting. A Pennsylvania official called Hogan’s comments “careless and insensitive” in light of deadly flooding in Central Pennsylvania last month.

Amid that flooding, Exelon said that Conowingo floodgates had to be opened to protect communities along the river from being inundated, and that the company removes “as much trash and debris from the river as possible” — 600 tons of it so far this year.

And they also noted that the Susquehanna was not the only one of the Chesapeake’s 12 major rivers to see a surge of floodwaters and debris.

The Susquehanna is the source of most of the Chesapeake’s fresh water and also much of its nutrient pollution, including sediment and phosphorus from across much of Pennsylvania and part of upstate New York.

Environmentalists and state officials are increasingly concerned about that pollution’s impact on the health of the Chesapeake because reservoirs that trap sediment and pollution behind the Conowingo, keeping it out of the Chesapeake, are full, potentially increasing the nutrient load that makes it into the bay.

Maryland environmental regulators are requiring the owner of the Conowingo Dam to find a way to limit pollution that flows down the Susquehanna River from reaching the Chesapeake Bay, because the structure is no longer effectively trapping the sediment and nutrients washing down from Pennsylvania.

As part of a federal licensing process for the Conowingo’s hydroelectric energy generation, Maryland imposed demands on Exelon in April that it find a way to prevent the load of pollution passing through the dam from increasing, and also that it collect more of the trash and debris that gets trapped by the dam.

In June, Exelon challenged those requirements in both state and federal courts, saying it should not be held responsible for pollution it does not create.

Exelon officials said Monday they “stand ready to join with state and local officials across the region to help arrive at an interjurisdictional strategy” for bay cleanup. But they maintained that the state’s demands are unfair.

“The Conowingo Dam is Maryland’s largest renewable energy source and cannot be held responsible for pollutants entering the Bay from upstream communities,” they said in a statement.

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