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Partners in the future of the Chesapeake Bay

Nov 01, 2016 02:22PM ● Published by Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

It is nearly impossible to dispute that when it comes to Maryland's leading players in the effort to provide clean, reliable energy for millions of residents and businesses in the region, the Conowingo Dam has been at -- or very near -- the top of that list, since 1928, the year the dam opened.
The hydroelectric facility -- owned and operated by Exelon Generation -- is Maryland’s largest source of renewable electricity, producing more clean energy than all other sources combined. It produces 1.6 million megawatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power more than 159,000 typical households for an entire year. It prevents 6.5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and has avoided the burning of 2.8 million tons of coal in the past ten years – enough to fill M&T Bank Stadium four times. It is also an economic engine for the region, delivering $273 million in economic benefits to Maryland.
Now, Exelon Generation has another job to do.
Over the course of nearly a century, more than 170 million tons of sediment has built up in the vicinity of the Conowingo Dam, that flows past the dam and into the Chesapeake Bay, threatening its entire ecosystem. So while the dam itself has not directly been a part of the ecological problem that faces the bay, Exelon Generation is being asked to become part of the solution. 
On July 7, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan held the state's first Conowingo Dam Summit, where he announced the formation of a multi-agency work group to seek innovative solutions for reducing pollution that threatens the Chesapeake Bay. Hogan and officials in the state informed Exelon Generation of their intent to accelerate the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay by identifying cost-effective dredging solutions, including the beneficial or innovative uses for the sediments and associated nutrients near the dam itself.
Hogan said the dam’s sediment problem has been “ignored for eight years” and said that a dredging operation -- at a pricetag of $250 million -- might be the answer to the bay’s pollution problem.
“The time is now to find ways to accelerate the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, and we are calling for innovative minds to step forward with good ideas to foster collaboration and partnerships so we can tackle this problem from all angles with everything we’ve got by finally addressing the problem of sediment here at Conowingo Dam,” Gov. Hogan said.
Cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay has been a huge goal of the current administration, and has been since Hogan first ran for office in 2014. This year, the administration invested $53 million in the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays Trust Fund, the highest level of funding since the Fund was established.
Hogan is not alone in this initiative. Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton, Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles, Secretary of Planning Wendi Peters, Secretary of Agriculture Joe Bartenfelder, and Acting Director of the Maryland Environmental Service John O’Neill are also on board.
At the state’s request, Exelon Generation is funneling $3.5 million into as many as 50 separate studies -- in partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers -- in order to gain more detailed information about how sediment and nutrients from behind Conowingo are impacting the Bay. The results of those studies are expected later this year.
Exelon Generation Director of Communications Marshall Murphy said that while the company is concerned about the significant cost of dredging -- and whether it would provide a cost effective tool to help the ecosystem -- it is approaching its role as just one stakeholder in a multi-stakeholder, multi-state project.
"As the owner and operator for the dam, we have a important responsibility to work with all parties to arrive at a regional-based, science-based solution related to water quality in the Chesapeake Bay," Murphy said. "Everyone acknowledges that there is sediment building up behind the dam, and it is there as a result of a number of actions over the decades. Our job is to work with the State of Maryland, to participate in a support mode. We will continue to work with them as the Governor refines his thinking around the request for information."
While Exelon Generation continues to study the problem, there is another hurdle for the company to climb.
In 2014, Exelon applied for a new 46-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to continue to operate Conowingo, at the same time state officials made it known of their intent to reject Exelon's certification status. Subsequently, Exelon pulled its request for licensing until its studies are complete.
"We are working to arrive at a decision by state and federal officials that will allow us to continue the operation of the dam, and that process is moving forward," Murphy said. "While the licensing process moves forward, we continue to provide information to Maryland for their use in arriving at a water quality certification.
"We are committed to seeing the license of the dam successfully renewed for its next operating cycle, and we have done a tremendous amount of work in order to do so."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com.



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