Opinion: Exelon’s Claims About Conowingo Dam Don’t Add Up

Conowingo
U.S. Geological Survey photo from 2012 Scientific Investigation Report.

The letter from an Exelon employee (“Conowingo Dam License Will Benefit the BayMaryland Matters, June 18, 2021) is full of inaccuracies, and claiming that the dam is a “best management practice” is completely ridiculous.

While the dam may have slowed the flow of some sediment and trash for a time, the dam collected it and now releases it in catastrophic unnatural high-impact releases. Instead of slow and steady sediment releases, where in a healthy bay it could be somewhat filtered, it now comes in massive doses that smoothers and kills oysters, grass and benthic life. Additionally, few things are more catastrophic to rivers and their ecosystems than dams.

Maryland Department of the Environment’s water quality certification for the dam issued in 2018 clearly outlined how the dam has caused pollution and harm to the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

MDE found the dam “has significantly and adversely impacted biota in the Lower River and the northern Bay over the past 90 years of operation, as a result of: (i) its highly unnatural operational flow regimes; (ii) the Dam serving as a barrier to fish passage upstream; and (iii) the Dam serving as an obstacle to fish passage and coarse-sediment transport for habitat downstream.”

Exelon, a multibillion-dollar corporation, uses a public resource to make a very substantial profit. If Exelon is claiming the dam as a best management practice or a benefit to the Bay, their actions and the facts do not support this claim.

MDE found that “… the Reservoir is now full, as no efforts have been undertaken over the life of the Project, such as routine dredging, to maintain any trapping function.” Furthermore, “[b]y releasing significant amounts of sediment and nutrients through scouring during storm events, the Dam has altered the nature, timing, and delivery method of these materials with adverse consequences for the Lower River and the Bay.”

The amount Exelon claims to be investing doesn’t add up, and neither does their fish count.

Most “improvements” Exelon touts are required by law due to a settlement with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. MDE found that “millions of Shad and Herring should be passing upstream in the River every year” as well as “[m]illions of Eel” but that in 2017 “only 15,000 Shad and 65 Herring passed the Dam” and only “thousands” of eel.

This is just another example of unjust inequities created by a corporate take-over of a natural resource.

Exelon has done nothing but fight MDE, file lawsuits and do everything possible to avoid paying its fair share of what it will take to clean up the pollution at Conowingo Dam. Instead, the taxpayers of the Bay states will be on the hook to clean up Exelon’s mess which is the biggest threat to the future of the Lower Susquehanna, the Bay and its rivers.

If MDE can’t do the right thing, we need the Maryland legislature or the courts to fix this corporate giveaway at the expense of our bay’s health.

In the meantime, while Exelon continues to dodge their responsibility, just pray we do not have another Hurricane Agnes.

–JEFF HORSTMAN

The writer is the founder of ShoreRivers and its former executive director.