On October 30, Governor Larry Hogan announced a comprehensive agreement between the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and Exelon Generation Company, LLC, which operates the Conowingo Dam, that requires Exelon to invest more than $200 million in environmental projects and operational enhancements to improve water quality in the Lower Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay.

conowingo dam
Photo courtesy of Exelon

The agreement settles Exelon’s legal challenges to the water quality certification issued in 2018 by Maryland under Section 401 of the Clean Water Act, removing the prospect of years of costly litigation and delay and, instead, setting the stage for immediate and lasting water quality benefits.

“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,” said Governor Hogan. “This settlement is a significant and positive step in the right direction, and with the cooperation of Exelon and upstream states, we can continue making progress in our efforts to preserve and protect this great national treasure.”

Under the agreement, Exelon will make a total investment of more than $200 million, including nearly $107 million in cash payments to support environmental initiatives, such as climate resiliency projects, efforts to remove trash and debris flowing down the Susquehanna River, restoration of a healthy population of water-filtering mussels in the Susquehanna, and others. For the full list of initiatives, visit news.maryland.gov.

“This agreement charts a bold course for clean water and climate resiliency in the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay,” said Maryland Environment secretary Ben Grumbles. “This comprehensive, enforceable commitment by Exelon is part of Maryland’s holistic strategy to improve water quality and accelerate the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay.”

The settlement builds on commitments Exelon has previously made to improve environmental and recreational conditions at and around the dam. In 2016, Exelon entered into a settlement agreement with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to implement critical improvements to the fish passage facilities at the dam, which Exelon estimates will require investments exceeding $300 million. Exelon also estimates that it will invest more than $120 million to make enhancements to recreational sites, including dredging of Broad Creek, Conowingo Creek, Peters Creek, and Glen Cove Marina.

Scientific reports confirm that the Conowingo Dam has reached full capacity and can no longer stop pollution from entering the Bay, which severely threatens the state’s and region’s ability to meet Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals. 

Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Response:

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) is concerned that the settlement agreement announced between Exelon and the Maryland Department of the Environment falls short of mitigating the negative water quality impacts associated with operating Conowingo Dam.

The settlement requires Exelon to invest about $200 million to obtain an approximately 50-year licensing agreement to operate the dam. The agreement includes funding for trash removal at the Dam, mussel restoration, improved fish passage, and agricultural conservation practices. While all of these are laudable projects, CBF had advocated that the majority of any funds be spent on upstream practices that would reduce the sediments and nutrient pollutants that reach the dam. This approach was identified by the 2016 Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment as being the most cost-effective way to reduce downstream water quality impacts.

In addition, Exelon’s investment is significantly smaller than what a previous study found the energy company could contribute while still netting a profit from the dam. The study commissioned by CBF and The Nature Conservancy found Exelon could provide between $27 million to $44 million per year for water quality improvements.

For decades, the dam on the Susquehanna River trapped significant amounts of sediment and nutrient pollutants from farms and other sources behind the dam. Now though, the dam’s reservoir is full and significant storm events scour pollutants from behind the dam and send them into the Chesapeake Bay.

These scouring events affect the timing and amount of pollution that enters the Bay and the events harm fish, habitat, and water quality downstream.

In response to the settlement, CBF’s Maryland Executive Director Alison Prost issued the following statement:

“We still need more details on the settlement agreement. However, we believe Exelon’s identified projects and the roughly $4 million per year commitment over the dam’s nearly 50-year licensing agreement are insufficient investments to offset the negative water quality impacts caused by the dam’s operations. Based on our previous analysis, Exelon can and should invest more. CBF has long held that Exelon is responsible for mitigating pollution from the Conowingo Dam and the best way to do so is by addressing it with significant environmental improvements upstream.”

For more information on CBF's stance on the Conowingo Dam, visit cbf.org.