DAVID AND GOLIATH AT THE CONOWINGO DAM

Posted on June 26, 2018 by Ridgway Hall

Exelon owns and operates the Conowingo Dam across the Susquehanna River in Maryland just below the Pennsylvania border, including a 573 megawatt hydroelectric power plant. It is seeking a renewal of its operating license from FERC under the Federal Power Act for 50 years. Section 401 of the Clean Water Act requires that any applicant for a federal license that may result in a discharge submit a certification by the state where the discharge will occur that the discharge “will comply with the applicable provisions” of the CWA, including water quality standards. The certification may include conditions and requirements, including monitoring and reporting, deemed necessary to ensure compliance. The certification becomes part of the federal license, and the licensing agency may not change it.

The facts in this case are unusual, and the outcome will likely be precedential. For decades, sediment has flowed down the 450 miles of the Susquehanna River from New York and Pennsylvania and accumulated in the reservoir behind the dam, trapping nitrogen, phosphorus, metals, PCBs and other pollutants along with the sediment,  Now the trapping capacity has been reached. Several times in recent decades severe storms have scoured out tons of this sediment and carried it over the dam and into the Chesapeake Bay 10 miles downstream, causing not just violation of water quality standards, but severe damage to oysters, bay grasses and benthic organisms.  In addition, the dam has blocked historic fish passage. Measures such as fish ladders and transportation have produced only modest relief. Since 2010 the entire Chesapeake Bay and its tributary system has been subject to a multi-state total maximum daily load (TMDL) for nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, but at the time that was set, it was not anticipated that the Conowingo trapping capacity would be exhausted this soon.

On April 27, 2018, the Maryland Department of the Environment issued a CWA certification in which it determined that numerous conditions must be complied with by Exelon in order to reasonably ensure compliance with water quality standards. It requires, among other things, measures to ensure compliance with standards for dissolved oxygen (DO), chlorophyll-A (an indicator of algae), turbidity, temperature, pH and bacteriological criteria in the reservoir and downstream waters including the Bay, plus compliance with plans to protect various fish species, waterfowl and habitat. It also requires shoreline protection, removal of trash from the reservoir and a variety of monitoring programs.

Notably, to satisfy the DO standards, which are adversely affected by nutrients and are critical to aquatic life, MDE requires that starting in 2025 Exelon must annually reduce the amount of nitrogen in its discharges by 6 million pounds, and phosphorus by 260,000 pounds. Exelon can also satisfy this requirement by installing best management practices elsewhere upstream or paying $17 per pound of nitrogen and $270 per pound of phosphorus for any amounts not removed.

Exelon promptly filed a request for reconsideration and administrative appeal with MDE. It also filed a complaint in Maryland state court seeking a declaration that the certification could not be considered “final action” until proceedings before MDE were concluded, including Exelon’s right to an evidentiary hearing; an injunction against any consideration of the certification by FERC, and, alternatively, for judicial review. Exelon also filed suit in the U.S District Court in Washington, D.C., claiming that MDE’s certification exceeded its CWA authority and constituted an unconstitutional taking of its property, and seeking declaratory and injunctive relief.  See Exelon’s filings at here.

Among Exelon’s complaints is the fact that the certification would require it to spend vast sums to remove pollutants that did not come from its operations, but from upstream polluters. The fee equivalent of the nitrogen and phosphorus removals would amount to $172 million per year – far more than Exelon earns from the operation of Conowingo. An environmental impact statement had concluded that efforts to remove the sediment from behind the dam “would be cost-prohibitive and ineffective.” Releases from the dam, Exelon contends, are not “discharges” but “pass-through.” Exelon also argues that fish passage damage was caused decades ago and it would be unfair to make Exelon bear the full cost of restoring it.

Some environmental groups have joined the administrative appeal process.  Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna and Waterkeepers Chesapeake (a group of 18 Waterkeeper organizations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed) appealed to MDE asking that protection against scouring by big storms be strengthened and that likely effects from climate change be considered, but otherwise supporting the certification. The Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, both with longstanding interests in water quality and restoration of the fisheries and fish passage, have also been actively involved.

The stakes are high. MDE, “David” in my title, has taken some bold measures to address some enormous problems, and Exelon is fighting back hard. However it comes out, the resolution will have precedential value for other CWA 401 cases across the country, and particularly for hydroelectric projects.



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