ELKTON — Delivering the action that Cecil County officials have been waiting for years, Gov. Larry Hogan is compelling Exelon Generation Company to help clean up the pollution from the Conowingo Dam or to pay the price.

That price, Clean Chesapeake Coalition attorney Charles “Chip” MacLeod told the county council Tuesday morning, would be $172 million a year. But that money only comes to Maryland if the energy company does not comply with the stringent conditions included in the state’s water quality certification.

“We’ve been referring to this as bold, historic and smart,” MacLeod said during the work session. “The Hogan administration really took the bull by the horns, and said this is a problem. If we don’t address it, our efforts downstream and the money that’s spent to improve water quality may be in vain.”

Exelon is in the process of renewing its 50-year license from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for the dam, the southernmost dam in the Susquehanna River. To reach that step, however, the energy corporation needs a water quality certificate from Maryland.

Hogan and the Clean Chesapeake Coalition have rallied to hold Exelon accountable for the nutrient and sediment pollution, like nitrogen and phosphorus, that flows through the dam. Those sediments cloud the water and block sunlight the underwater vegetation, ultimately degrading the Chesapeake ecosystem.

Conowingo Dam at first improved water quality in the Bay by trapping the sediment, but the reservoir has reached capacity, according to the 59-page water quality certification. Thanks to periodic dredging and other initiatives in the dam’s 90 years of existence.

In extreme storm events, Perryville and Port Deposit streets can get dusted with sediment as well, making the matter a top priority for Cecil County.

The Maryland Department of Environment (MDE) issued the permit, but with it comes the requirement that Exelon create a plan to reduce 6 million pounds of nitrogen and 260,000 pounds of phosphorus a year, MacLeod said.

Speaking directly to Cecil County’s concerns with visible trash and debris that collect at the dam’s edge, the permit also allows a solar-powered trash wheel, much like the Mr. Trash Wheel that clean’s Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, to clean it up.

“How Exelon does it, there’s many options,” MacLeod said. “[They can] absolutely put pressure on Pennsylvania. If Exelon can get [the state] to do something to reduce 3 million pounds of nitrogen, then they’ve done half their obligation. It’s all about leverage. The payment is in lieu if they don’t come up with activities or programs.”

In a prepared statement on Friday, Hogan warned that while this was “a decisive action,” all progress on Bay cleanup efforts could be lost if the state did not pursue a comprehensive regional approach to reducing pollution in the Susquehanna River.

“From the beginning of our administration we have sounded the warning on the problems caused by the Conowingo Dam,” the governor said in a press release. “This certification provides a strong framework for working with the upstream states and private partners such as Exelon to take real actions to address the sediment and nutrient pollution problems caused by the dam so we can preserve the Bay for future generations.”

Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles added the water quality certification is part of a critical and “holistic approach” to hitting Bay restoration goals.

“The stringent environmental conditions in the certification are at the heart of a comprehensive strategy to speed up the cleanup of the Bay and hold our partners accountable for doing their part to create a healthier watershed. This water quality certification, based on sound science and law, includes responsible and necessary conditions for pollution prevention and continued progress for the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay,” Grumbles said in a press statement.

Macleod and the Chesapeake Coalition reportedly had “no idea” this decision was coming.

“As much as we worked on this issue, and wanted action and something to sink our teeth into — here we have it,” he said. “We’re going to watch closely how this unfolds.”

Exelon has 30 days to appeal the permit, or until December 2019 to present a plan on how change its operation. The state and the Exelon have been at odds over how much responsibility the corporation has over the sediment, which Exelon argues should fall primarily on northern states where it’s created and not the dam that coincidentally traps it.

“We are reviewing the State of Maryland’s water quality certification now and will evaluate next steps to determine the long-term viability of the Conowingo Dam,” Exelon said in a press release. “We will evaluate next steps to determine the long-term viability of the Conowingo Dam.”

Council Vice President Dan Schneckenburger noted the $172 million payment in lieu of making changes would make a significant impact in the state’s watershed implementation plan, although he wanted to see direct action.

“If they’re getting credits from Pennsylvania, which I don’t have problem with, it doesn’t necessarily affect the kind of expenditures our county or other see when we have to clean up and move forward,” he said.

Macleod said that the coalition’s goal was never to extract money from Exelon, but to turn them into partners in cleaning up the Bay instead of “digging in their heels.”

“They’re not the No. 1 problem, but they’re a big player. It’s a big company with a lot of resources that they can decide to put in the right direction,” he said. “With this decision, we hope their reaction is ‘You bet.’ We want them to step up and embrace the bay and become corporate stewards instead of saying ‘It’s not our problem.’”

It has yet to be decided that if the annual $172 million comes through, whether it would go to the MDE or other expenses.

“We don’t want payments in lieu,” Council President Joyce Bowlsbey said. “We want it fixed.”

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