Lawmakers push bill to axe Conowingo Dam deal

Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, during a press conference Wednesday, March 11, in Annapolis, speaks out against a deal Gov. Larry Hogan proposed that would give the Conowingo Dam’s operator, Exelon Corp., more control over the hydroelectric dam’s nearby Chesapeake Bay waterways.

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers have introduced an emergency bill that seeks to break off Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposed deal with Exelon Corp. — a deal, they say, would box out the state from overseeing the Conowingo Dam’s water quality impacts to Chesapeake Bay waterways.

The deal Hogan proposed between Maryland’s Department of the Environment and Exelon Corp. — a Chicago-based, multi-billion-dollar energy company that owns and operates one of Maryland’s largest energy sources, the Conowingo Dam — would give Exelon federal licensing over the hydroelectric dam for the next 50 years and waive a Water Quality Certification requirement for the company.

Hogan has called the deal a “significant and positive step in the right direction.”

“Our administration has committed an historic $5 billion toward wide-ranging Bay initiatives and taken bold and aggressive steps to address the challenges posed by pollution, sediment and debris at the Conowingo Dam,” Hogan said, adding, with the “cooperation of Exelon and upstream states, we can continue making progress in our efforts to preserve and protect this great national treasure.”

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have painted a different picture of the agreement — saying it essentially would take away the state’s ability to hold Exelon accountable for potential harm its dam operations could have on the Bay.

Lawmakers also have warned that taxpayers would be stuck with the bill for environmental initiatives that would be needed to combat the dam’s effects on the water, such as pollution, debris and decreased water quality.

The state’s consolation for giving Exelon free reign of the dam’s waterways, according to an outline of the deal, is proposed to be a $200 million contribution from the company during the next 50 years to go toward various Bay restoration efforts. Those efforts would include climate resiliency projects, sediment and pollution mitigation, and wildlife protections, among other initiatives.

While any financial assistance to Maryland’s ongoing Chesapeake Bay resiliency efforts objectively can be seen as a good thing, lawmakers who represent districts affected by the dam — which is located between Harford and Cecil counties — have said the deal lets Exelon off the regulatory hook when the company should be fronting significantly more funds to counter the dam’s detriments.

Legislators in opposition of the deal said, if it goes through, Maryland’s hard-earned progress in improving the Bay’s health could be erased, and Marylanders will be forced to pick up the tab for Bay cleanup that will inevitably be needed if Exelon is left unchecked.

Sen. Steve Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, who sponsored emergency Senate bill 955 to counter Hogan’s deal, said in a statement Wednesday, March 11, that the deal “poses a tremendous risk to the health and welfare of our environment and our citizens.”

“Members of both parties agree — we do not want to put ourselves in the position where we have signed away our future negotiating options when it comes to our ongoing restoration efforts of the Chesapeake Bay,” Hershey said.

Del. Jay Jacobs, R-36-Kent, who sponsored SB955’s cross-filed House bill 1465, said during a press conference March 11 that his district has been dealing with what he calls the “Conowingo effect” for years — meaning large chunks of debris, pollution and sediment floating down Chesapeake Bay waterways and ending up near the upper Eastern Shore.

The debris, lawmakers and environmentalists have said, negatively impacts commercial fisheries, water quality, Bay recreation and aquatic life.

Jacobs criticized Hogan’s Exelon deal, saying a “maximum of $200 million put on the table (by Exelon) for the next 50 years ... is woefully short of where we need to be in addressing the issues that are the ‘Conowingo effect.’”

Zack Kelleher, Sassafras Riverkeeper with ShoreRivers, who also was at the March 11 press conference, seconded Jacobs’s sentiments toward the deal, saying Exelon needs to be held accountable for the dam’s water quality impacts.

“The Sassafras River is located 11 miles across the Bay from the mouth of the Susquehanna, so we’re on the front lines of anything that spills out of Conowingo any time they open the floodgates,” Kelleher said. “Any time those gates are open, you can tune into the marine radio, and the Coast Guard is warning Marylanders about the large debris fields floating down the Bay.”

Kelleher said he often sees “logs, full trees, 55 gallons of medical waste, tires, boats, all sorts of crazy things” floating down the river. But that’s only the “stuff we can see,” he said, adding there are “all sorts of nutrients, sediments and pollutants floating down the Bay below the surface that we can’t see.”

Kelleher acknowledged, though, that the constant pollution and debris isn’t explicitly Exelon’s fault. The trash is coming from New York and Pennsylvania, and they should also be held accountable, he said.

However, Kelleher explained, Exelon is the only multi-billion-dollar corporation that’s profiting from the Bay and it needs to “contribute meaningfully to address and mitigate the environmental degradations that it’s causing.”

Bill Scerbo, president of the Anne Arundel Watermen’s Association, speaking on behalf of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, said Wednesday one of the most recurring topics of discussion among watermen during the season is how many floodgates are open on the Dam.

“It makes or breaks a season for crabbers in the upper Bay, and it makes or breaks seasons for clammers,” Scerbo said. “And for folks that like grasses, it wipes them out, and we end up fighting amongst ourselves to figure out who’s to blame for where the grass went.”

Scerbo continued, saying, “I’m disappointed that the governor took the easy way out. But every politician has always taken the easy way out on this issue.”

He said Maryland watermen are “very much in favor of fixing this dam issue,” and “the way the state is going with this right now is not the right way.”

Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake, rounded out Wednesday’s press conference, calling Hogan’s agreement with Exelon “a dirty dam deal.”

Nicholas said her organization is urging the governor to withdraw from the settlement.

“This is such an important issue,” she said. “Over the next 50 years, the markets of our watermen, crabs and oysters, people who recreate in the Chesapeake waterways, the people who live nearby, tax payers throughout Maryland, are all going to be suffering the consequences if we don’t fix this dirty deal now.”

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