Susquehanna riverkeeper cites 'really horrible' field of debris flowing downstream near Conowingo Dam

This winter’s ever-changing weather sent “massive amounts” of trees, limbs and trash downstream, creating a large debris field along the Lower Susquehanna River near Conowingo Dam, an advocate for the river said.

Ted Evgeniadis, the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, said a confluence of events caused the debris to wash toward the Chesapeake Bay.

During the cold snap in January, the river froze. Then the weather warmed, melting ice on the river as well as snow on land nearby. Combined with a few days of rain, that sent a torrent of water downstream, he said.

The cycle is not uncommon, but “this year was really horrible,” Evgeniadis said. “Some people probably haven’t seen it this bad in a while.”

Images of the debris field circulated on social media in recent days, and one post on Twitter prompted a response from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which posted on its own Twitter feed that Exelon, the company that operates Conowingo Dam, “is responsible for removing floating as well as submerged debris around [the dam].”

Deena O’Brien, an Exelon spokeswoman, said the company does have a debris removal program — and typically removes about 700 tons of debris near Conowingo each year. But she said Susquehanna River levels have been too high recently for the company to safely remove debris from the river before it reaches the dam.

“It would be extremely dangerous to have a skimmer boat operating in fast-moving and highly turbulent waters,” O’Brien said in a statement.

The company has an overhead crane to remove large items, but that too is unsafe to use in high winds and inclement weather, O’Brien said.

The Susquehanna River drains a land area of more than 27,000 square miles that reaches from Maryland into Pennsylvania and New York.

Much of the snow melt, rain and flooding was worse in the upper reaches of the river’s watershed than in areas near the mouth of the river, Evgeniadis said.

“There’s places in the middle Susquehanna and the northern sections that were just absolutely flooded out. All that debris flows down,” Evgeniadis said.

Riverkeepers are part of a nonprofit environmental organization that advocates for conservation and overall health of rivers and tributaries. Evgeniadis said he hopes to organize river cleanups to remove some of the trash and debris, but said the damage is so extensive that it’s going to take a huge effort.

He hopes to partner with other organizations to get enough manpower to make a dent.

“It’s going to be all hands on deck,” he said.

In addition to natural debris and trash, the Susquehanna endured an unusual addition over the weekend downstream from the dam — four CSX rail cars that fell into the river when a train derailed on a bridge.

The four empty rail cars were traveling between Cecil and Harford counties at about 8 p.m. Friday. The cause remains under investigation, though the incident happened during the wind storm that swept through the region.

No injuries were reported, no hazardous materials were involved and there appeared to be no environmental impact, officials said. CSX officials said Tuesday that some personnel continued working at the site. Two cars had been removed from the river over the weekend, though the other two were still in the water.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson and Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter David Anderson contributed to this story.

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