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Editorial

Conowingo: Voided license is water over the dam; let’s float a better deal to cut pollution. | COMMENTARY

A 50-year license for the Conowingo Dam was voided by a federal court in December as environmental groups say it posed a missed opportunity to compel Constellation, which runs the dam, to do more to stop pollutants flowing down the Susquehanna River and into the Chesapeake Bay. File. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun).

Last month’s ruling by U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia voiding the license issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to operate the Conowingo Dam drew predictable responses. Environmental groups hailed the Dec. 20 decision as a victory for efforts to address the tons of pollution, including sediment and nutrients, that was once trapped by the Susquehanna River structure but now regularly passes through the dam and into the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, Baltimore-based Constellation Energy, Conowingo’s owner, denounced the decision as an “attack on the state’s largest source of renewable energy” putting at risk hundreds of millions of dollars the company had already pledged toward environmental programs.

Now if both sides have gotten that out of their systems, it’s time to get back to the negotiating table and devise a plan that addresses what should be the core issue — all that excess nitrogen and phosphorus that flows into the Chesapeake from the Susquehanna and its tributaries.

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Upstream communities, chiefly in Pennsylvania, have done a terrible job of regulating water quality. Constellation Energy isn’t to blame for that. Nor was Chicago-based Exelon Corp., Conowingo’s former owner until it spun off Constellation early last year. But there’s no disputing that the dam served for many years as a sediment trap, greatly reducing the amount of pollution headed to the bay. That’s simply no longer the case. Today, the dam has reached its sediment storage capacity, and so every major rain brings a wave of harmful pollution that the nation’s largest estuary isn’t capable of handling. It’s wrong to grant a 50-year license unless this changed circumstance has been adequately addressed.

Of course, this all could have been avoided if states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed had followed through on past promises to reduce pollution, yet the reality is they have come up short, particularly Pennsylvania farmers. So if funding for pollution controls is currently inadequate, it makes sense to leverage the recertification of the dam for the greatest good. Every dollar that is squeezed out of the utility might go toward such things as forest buffers, better stormwater management controls and soil conservation practices upstream. Would this put the dam and its renewable energy at risk? We seriously doubt it. It’s really just a question of finding the right figure — an amount that addresses the pollution problem without crippling Constellation or utility ratepayers.

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A 2017 study conducted for environmental advocacy groups by Energy+ Environmental Economics of San Francisco, California, estimated that the dam’s owner could contribute $27 million to $44 million annually for remediation and still make a profit. And make no mistake, these same opponents of the Conowingo license don’t want to see the dam and its low-carbon energy shuttered either. But what they do understand, and perhaps Constellation does not, is the urgency of the water pollution problem and the need to advance better mitigation than was provided for in the license that’s now been voided.

This isn’t just some far-left greenies worried about the 95-year-old Conowingo’s future. Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expressed “no confidence” in cleanup efforts meant to offset Conowingo-related pollution because of a lack of funding. In a Jan. 24 letter to bay states, the EPA even suggested that the agency might force states to take action. That may sound a bit like a bluff, but one suspects EPA Administrator Michael Regan will find plenty of support from Wes Moore when the newly elected Democrat takes office as Maryland’s governor later this month. And even with greater contributions from Constellation, Chesapeake watershed states still face big, and potentially costly, challenges to meet cleanup goals.

Frankly, this shouldn’t be that difficult a problem to solve. All sides can surely agree that the Conowingo Dam will continue to operate. States will need to do more about water pollution, but Constellation, a private utility that takes advantage of a public resource, needs to do more as well. See, that isn’t so difficult, is it? The rest is just a matter of finding the right dollar amount. Let’s start with that $44 million figure, adjust for inflation, and see where it goes. Hopefully, that destination would not be in a protracted legal battle but in a settlement that produces a “win” for everyone, most especially toward the goal of a cleaner Chesapeake Bay.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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