Bay Journal, Appeals court vacates Conowingo Dam license
The long-running debate over how to deal with Conowingo Dam’s impact on the Chesapeake Bay is on again. A federal appeals court on Tuesday vacated the license granted in 2021 to operate the hydropower facility on the Susquehanna River.
Siding with environmental groups, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission exceeded its authority by accepting a privately negotiated deal between Maryland and the utility that owns the dam as part of the license agreement. Under that deal, the state had greatly scaled back what it had originally required of the dam’s operator to reduce pollution coming downriver to the Bay.
Spokespeople for groups that had challenged the license hailed the court’s ruling, saying it clears the way for making the dam’s operator, Constellation Energy, to play a bigger part in dealing with the water-fouling nutrients and sediment building up behind Conowingo and flowing downriver.
“This decision will not only protect the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay for the next 50 years of this license term but will also ensure that all water quality certifications for large projects can’t just be thrown out when it is politically expedient or when the state is pressured to do so,” said Betsy Nicholas, executive director of Waterkeepers Chesapeake. “This is a big win for the Chesapeake Bay, watermen, downstream residents and the entire Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan.”
The Waterkeepers group, along with two of its member organizations — the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper and Sassafras Riverkeeper — and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation filed suit in June 2021. They asked the court to overturn FERC’s acceptance of what some called a “sweetheart deal” between Maryland and Constellation’s corporate predecessor, Exelon Corp., over what the company would do to address the dam’s impacts on water quality and aquatic habitat.
The 94-foot-high dam straddles the Susquehanna in Maryland, about 10 miles upstream from the Bay. Its turbines generate enough emission-free electricity to power 165,000 homes, according to Constellation. After the dam’s completion in 1928, it captured a portion of the nutrients and sediments washing down the river. But now its 14-mile reservoir is mostly filled, and more nutrients and sediment from farm runoff, municipal wastewater and stormwater flow through the dam and into the Chesapeake, where they contribute to algae blooms and other water quality woes.
Incidental to its original function to produce electricity, Conowingo collected sediment and pollution from its completion in 1928 until recently, when the reservoir behind it essentially filled with mud washed down from Pennsylvania. Without the dam, that sediment would have continually entered the Bay. Now that the reservoir is full, environmentalists and court are saying that the company that now owns the dam (which is not the company that built it), owes them for no longer being able to do that. If I were Constellation, and had fuck you money, I'd just abandon the dam.