State seeks proposals for Conowingo sediment
DARLINGTON — The Maryland Environmental Service will send out requests for proposal on Aug. 31 to find a pilot project to address the sediment backup behind the Conowingo Dam, Gov. Larry Hogan announced Tuesday, Aug. 7.
The Susquehanna River provides nearly half of the Chesapeake Bay’s freshwater, and with that, it carries sediment and pollutants downstream from Pennsylvania and New York. Located at the end of the Susquehanna River, the Conowingo Dam traps sediment, as well
as associated pollution from nitrogen and phosphorous, that would be flowing into the Chesapeake Bay.
“The Conowingo Dam has reached capacity and is no longer able to trap pollution,” Hogan said during a press conference at the foot of the dam.
That press conference was the culmination of Hogan’s second Conowingo Dam Summit, where he met with state and local officials, regional partners from Pennsylvania and Virginia, and members of the scientific, research and environmental advocacy communities to discuss the sediment issue. Earlier in the morning, Hogan addressed a seminar sponsored by the National Governors Association’s Water Policy Learning Network, which he co-chairs along with California Gov. Jerry Brown.
Nearly 200 million tons of sediment and pollutants are trapped behind the dam, and medium-to-large storms can increase river flow, forcing sediment through the dam and into the Bay.
Sediment, nitrogen and phosphorous are three pollutants that could harm the bay. Sediment can be a shock to ecosystems, clouding the water and blocking sunlight, thereby harming underwater vegetation and therefore other underwater organisms like fish and crabs.
Nitrogen and phosphorous have similar effects. They can cause severe algae blooms, which have a doubly negative impact: they can create dead zones, where there is no oxygen to support marine life, and they can also block sunlight, in the same way sediment does.
Scientists and environmental advocates had been divided over the dam’s impact on pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, but experts are now in consensus that the sediment backup is posing a major threat, something Hogan and like-minded allies had been saying for years.
“The scientific community is now in complete agreement with our assessment,” Hogan said.
Maryland Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles told APG Media that the buildup represents “one of the biggest unaddressed issues” in the cleanup of the Chesapeake Bay, and without addressing it Maryland would be unable to achieve its 2025 restoration goal. Even without periodic storm surges, the maximum buildup means sediment scour, or leakage, from behind the dam is an everyday issue affecting the health of the bay, Grumbles added.
Last year, the governor created a multi-agency workgroup and issued requests for information to determine what innovative solutions could be developed to remove the sediment.
“Our administration issued an RFI, a request for information, to identify cost effective dredging solutions including beneficial or innovative uses for sediment and associated nutrients behind the dam,” Hogan said.
Now, the governor is seeking full-fledged proposals for dredging the sediment and how to reuse the dredged material.
A bid is expected to be awarded in the fall, with dredging being completed by March 1.
This first RFP is just a pilot test to determine the efficacy of dredging. Bidding companies will be asked to demonstrate how they will dredge the material, what they will use it for and how much it will cost. Hogan described the pilot as a “demonstration.”
At first, the company will dredge just 25,000 cubic yards of material — a tiny fraction of the estimated 31 million cubic yards built up behind the dam. At that point, experts will review the material, the impact on the bay and what the company could do with the material.
Roy McGrath, director of the Maryland Environmental Service, said one of the goals is to “find innovative uses to use the extracted sediment.”
The state will bear the cost of the bid, which will be determined by the bid process. If the pilot’s results are positive, the administration will seek larger scale bids to deal with the problem.
Exelon, the dam’s owner, is not paying for the pilot. Reached for comment, a spokesperson said Exelon is willing to work with Hogan and other parties on a solution.
“Exelon Generation believes protecting the vitality of the Bay is a multi-stakeholder, multi-state issue, and we continue to work with all parties, including Gov. Hogan and his administration, to ensure the Lower Susquehanna River retains its important environmental and recreational benefits,” Exelon spokesperson Deena O’Brien said.
The expected impact on the environment from the pilot bid is minimal, but Hogan said he hopes it leads to a stronger solution.
“It will tell us whether it’s feasible to continue to make a larger investment here so that we can address this issue,” Hogan said.
A final bid, Hogan said, may be paid for by a group of parties. He said he has had conversations with Exelon and upstream states about paying for the dredging.
Asked whether he’d consider asking Attorney General Brian Frosh to take legal action against Pennsylvania and New York in order to push them to assist, Hogan didn’t rule it out. Just last month, Maryland officials announced they were doing just that in a case against the Environmental Protection Agency, after they argued that the EPA failed to enforce air emissions standards on upwind states, impacting Maryland’s air quality.
“If it comes down to that, we would,” Hogan said. “If we have to, we’ll file suit against the EPA and the upstream states.”
State Sen. Minority Whip Stephen Hershey, R-Upper Shore, agreed that legal action may be necessary.
“If it’s something that at the end of the day helps Maryland, then why not?” he said, pointing out Frosh’s numerous lawsuits against the Trump administration.
One organization that, like Hogan, has staunchly advocated for the Conowingo Dam sediment cleanup is the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, of which Cecil County is a party, represented by Attorney Charles “Chip” MacLeod. He said he was “delighted” by the announcement.
“For the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, we think it’s long overdue,” he said. “The RFP is going to answer a lot of questions.”
For MacLeod, is
“Maybe the downplaying and the denial is over,” he said.
Hershey said that, while environmentalists had always downplayed the dam’s impact, focusing on farm runoff instead, he and others put the spotlight on the dam. He said the Chesapeake Bay Foundation called the focus on the dam a “red herring.”
“This is where (the pollution) is happening,” Hershey said.
Allison Prost, the foundation’s executive director for Maryland, said that while dredging is worth exploring, more work still needs to be done to prevent pollution from entering the bay.
“We do worry that people are going to look at the dam at some silver bullet to clean the Chesapeake Bay, and we do not agree with that,” she said Tuesday. “Cleaning up the dam is not going to stop polluting our local waters and streams.” the announcement “vindication.”
Gov. Larry Hogan announces an upcoming request for proposals to deal with a buildup of sediment behind the Conowingo Dam during a press conference in Darlington on Tuesday, as Maryland Secretary of Natural Resources Mark Belton, center, and Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles look on.
Gov. Larry Hogan and members of his administration get an aerial view of the Conowingo Dam and the sediment built up behind it Tuesday before a press conference.