BALTIMORE - Sediments behind the Conowingo dam threatening bay restoration efforts must be dealt with sooner rather than later, and Exelon should be part of the solution as part of the relicensing of its hydro-electric power plant, a Maryland natural resources official said Tuesday.
Bruce Michael, director of the Resource Assessment Service at the Department of Natural Resources, made the comments as the Chesapeake Bay Program released a study using a new statistical method to gauge bay pollution levels that found sediment pollution from the dam has been increasing.
The dam across the Susquehanna River, the bay's major freshwater source, has kept sediments and other pollutants from reaching the bay for decades, but scientists warn it is reaching capacity. That means that storms more frequently are pushing muddy water over the dam, threatening ecologically important bay grasses, oysters and other species.
Options for dealing with the sediment are being developed by a commission that is to release proposals this summer. Those include dredging sediment from behind the dam or using pipes to carry it around. The sediment could be used to build islands and reefs in the bay, he said.
Michael said costs estimates had not been developed, but added it would cost millions of dollars and no one agency or private company would be able to address the cost on its own.
"Maryland wants to ensure that Exelon is part of the sediment management solution through the relicensing process," Michael said.
Exelon said in a statement Tuesday evening that it supports a regional approach to the health of the Chesapeake Bay as it relates to the operations of the Conowingo Dam.
"We are supportive of Lower Susquehanna River Watershed Assessment study and its parameters and reserve judgment on the as-of-yet undetermined next steps, and Exelon Generation's role following the conclusion of the study," the statement said.
Exelon's license expires in September 2014 and sediments behind the dam have been identified as the highest priority issue for relicensing, Michael said.
The new report comes as some county officials are expressing concerns about the costs of a new federally led restoration strategy.
Chip MacLeod, an attorney representing the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, a group of seven counties challenging the plan, said the announcement lifted his spirits. The attorney has said the impact of the dam has been overlooked in the restoration process.
"Nobody today is on the hook for doing something about those sediments," MacLeod said, adding that relicensing of the dam is the only opportunity to have Exelon "at the table unless they want to be."
The new strategy being led by the federal Environmental Protection Agency's Chesapeake Bay Program assigns strict pollution limits to each area in the six- state bay watershed. The limits are for pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizer, sewage, auto and power plant emissions cause oxygen-robbing algae blooms once they reach the bay, creating dead zones where sea life can't live. Sediments cloud the water and can bury grasses and oysters.
Farmers and agriculture interests are concerned because agriculture runoff is the single largest source of bay pollutants. While agriculture has made gains in reducing bay pollution, the strategy calls for even more reductions from all sectors, including limits on stormwater runoff from roads and developments.
The restoration is also being challenged in a federal court in Pennsylvania by groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Home Builders.
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