ELKTON — Cecil County has officially withdrawn from the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, an advocacy group focused on the Conowingo Dam’s impact on the environmental health of the bay.
County Executive Danielle Hornberger said that because of an over $200 million settlement that Exelon, who owns the dam, established with the state of Maryland in 2019, membership in the group is no longer necessary, as the coalition’s main function was legal efforts around the Conowingo Dam.
“Cecil County has withdrawn from the Clean Chesapeake Coalition as the Exelon deal has already been reached,” Hornberger said. “And equally important, the county has direct relationships with Exelon, the state and federal governments.”
Council President Bob Meffley argued that there are still further steps that need to be made with Exelon, such as further cleaning of the reservoir, so the County should remain part of the Coalition.
“I don’t think Exelon is going to do a thing,” Meffley said. “They’ve paid their money, they’re done.”
Councilwoman Jackie Gregory argued that it should be the state government’s responsibility to ensure Exelon conducts bay clean up efforts.
Membership in the coalition has declined over recent years from a high of 14 counties, to now – with the recent departures of Cecil and Kent County – three. Although the county is leaving the coalition, Hornberger authorized payment of half of the county’s membership dues for fiscal year 2022. The county originally budgeted the full $17,000 membership payment.
Though Gregory believes there was value in the coalition’s arguments against stricter agricultural regulations, she said the coalition’s declining membership means it has lost strength as an advocacy group in Annapolis.
“When there were many countries involved in this, it was a big voice,” Gregory said. “When there’s only a couple counties involved that loses your voice, especially when you’re in Annapolis.”
Hornberger said Gregory’s position with Andy Harris as community liaison means that the councilwoman will be able to update the council on continued matters relating to Exelon. The county administration will also work with Harford County.
The Clean Chesapeake Coalition has been fairly inactive online since the Exelon deal in 2019, with the last post on the coalition’s Facebook page (which was the only Facebook post made that year) published in May of 2020. When councilwoman Donna Culberson asked about the lack of public posts by the Clean Chesapeake Coalition in recent years, Charles MacLeod, legal counsel for the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, said the website is useful as an archive for people interested in the effects of the Conowingo Dam. MacLeod said a lack of resources for the coalition means that it is difficult to constantly update the website.
MacLeod said that the coalition has a role bigger than just Exelon, with the organization advocating for the position that local agriculture and fishing is not as big of a contributor to bay pollution as runoff from the Susquehanna River and sources like the Baltimore City wastewater treatment plant.
“It was never about Conowingo, it was never about Exelon,” MacLeod said. “It was about local elected officials who felt like the bay cleanup agenda wasn’t reasonable.”
Along with dredging the Conowingo Dam, the Clean Chesapeake Coalition has called for oyster and aquatic vegetation restoration, wastewater treatment plant upgrades, public sewer extensions to connect failing septic systems, and implementation of farmer recommended solutions for runoff.
MacLeod, along with his position at the Clean Chesapeake Coalition, serves as the Cecil County Council lawyer, which prompted public criticism – prior to the vote to leave the coalition – that this constitutes a conflict of interest. Meffley and MacLeod denied that any conflict of interest. Meffley pointed to the benefits of the work the Clean Chesapeake Coalition does on behalf of its member counties.
“If he didn’t do what he did we wouldn’t have gotten anything out of Exelon,” Meffley said.
MacLeod became the attorney for the County Council in 2021, after John Downs resigned, and has been involved in the coalition since 2012. Cecil County had been a member of the coalition since 2012, and MacLeod said he became the County Council lawyer after the government had already committed to being part of the Clean Chesapeake Coalition in 2022.
MacLeod said lobbying was a small part of the work of the Coalition, which includes actions such as continued monitoring of groups such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.