Maryland governor: Pennsylvania, New York need to 'take responsibility' for surge of debris in bay

Gov. Larry Hogan set off a testy interstate exchange Wednesday as he decried a recent surge of debris and sediment flowing into the Chesapeake Bay after last month’s heavy rainstorms and charged that upstream states are failing to do their part to curb pollution.

Hogan promised to raise the issue next week when he meets with governors from other states in the bay’s watershed and with officials of the federal Environmental Protection Administration.

“The upstream states — Pennsylvania and New York — need to step up and take responsibility for the debris and sediment that is pouring into our bay,” the Republican governor said. He estimated that 80 percent of the debris, sediment and phosphorus pollution entering the bay comes down the Susquehanna River and over the Conowingo Dam, a figure the dam’s owner and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation disputed.

Hogan spoke out against what he called “an economic and ecological crisis” at Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Public Works after Comptroller Peter Franchot raised the issue.

Franchot, a Democrat, called the performance of the upstream states an “absolute disgrace.” He called on all of the states in the bay watershed to “start acting as a good neighbor.”

“We’re literally drowning in Pennsylvania’s trash,” Franchot said.

The third member of the public works board, Democratic Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, said she agreed with Hogan and Franchot.

The administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, struck back.

“We are disappointed at these careless and insensitive remarks from Maryland officials that both undermine the tremendous strides Pennsylvania has made in improving water quality in the Susquehanna and Potomac watersheds, and insult the many Pennsylvanians still recovering from the record floods we just experienced, where at least two of our residents lost their lives,” said Patrick McDonnell, the state’s environmental protection secretary.

McConnell said the examples of trash that “Maryland politicians are complaining about represent devastated communities, damaged businesses and lives ruined.”

Recent EPA data assessing Chesapeake cleanup efforts show that Pennsylvania is indeed lagging behind the other states, widely missing goals for reducing nitrogen and sediment and falling short of a goal for phosphorus reduction. But Maryland and Virginia have missed goals in some areas, too, including nitrogen runoff from farms.

McDonnell called it “hypocritical” for Maryland to blame Pennsylvania and New York while it has missed its own goals.

Franchot asserted that runoff from recent rains has “wiped out” some progress, but it is, in fact, still unclear what impact the record July rainfall will have on bay health. The deluge washed large amounts of trash and debris into waterways from across Maryland and the rest of the bay watershed, and also unknown amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, which can disrupt bay ecology.

Hogan referred to recent pictures that showed a sheet of debris clogging Annapolis harbor after July’s record rainfall. He noted that the Maryland Department of the Environment is now waging a legal battle with Exelon, the Chicago-based power company that owns the Conowingo Dam, demanding that it limit the sediment that escapes from behind the structure.

Exelon officials said they had to open Conowingo gates to manage a water flow that was 10 times larger than normal, which “inevitably means more debris passing through the dam.” They said in a statement that they use overhead cranes and skimmer boats to collect debris — more than 600 tons of it so far this year.

Exelon officials also noted that the debris did not just come from the Susquehanna.

“All 12 major rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay experienced higher than normal water flows and debris loads because of heavy rain in the watershed,” they said.

Hogan also criticized the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, saying the deluge of debris in the bay proved that the group should not have questioned him for making the Conowingo and Susquehanna pollution a priority.

The foundation and other environmentalists have long raised concerns about a lackluster bay cleanup effort in Pennsylvania. The foundation has also recently cheered Hogan’s efforts to force Exelon to address Susquehanna pollution.

Foundation officials said the trash and debris that have collected in the bay recently are “a stark visual reminder of the pollution that flows into the Bay each and every day.”

They called the recent rainstorms “a very ugly incident” for the bay, but said the surge of pollution still makes up a minority of the overall load weighing on Chesapeake ecosystems.

“While scientific studies have indicated that nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment are scoured from behind the dam during high flow events, on average upstream sources account for the majority of the pollution,” Lisa Feldt, the foundation’s vice president for environmental protection and restoration, said in a statement.

Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia are also in the bay watershed. But Hogan and Franchot criticized Pennsylvania and New York for their role in pollution of the Susquehanna. The river originates near Cooperstown, N.Y., and flows through Pennsylvania before reaching the bay at Cecil County.

A wide swath of central Pennsylvania is in the Chesapeake watershed. A smaller portion of upstate New York has an impact on bay health.

The office of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, did not respond to a request for a comment.

Maryland’s governor is serving this year as chairman of the Chesapeake Executive Council. The group — made up of the six governors, the mayor of Washington, the EPA director and others — is scheduled to meet Tuesday in Baltimore.

Hogan promised to call for action at that gathering. “We need Exelon, the upstream states and the EPA to be part of the solution,” he said.

Pennsylvania’s McDonnell said the state has been a “good partner” in the bay cleanup.

“The reality is that storms like these are the new normal – just one of the local impacts of global climate change,” he said. “Leadership and investment from the highest levels of the federal government is needed to help states protect residents from climate impacts, which are now too severe and too frequent to ignore.”

mdresser@baltsun.com

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This story was featured in The Sun's Alexa Flash Briefing on Aug. 1, 2018.

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