ANNAPOLIS — A week’s worth of heavy rains and a wetter than usual July has polluted the Chesapeake Bay with debris and sediment, and Comptroller Peter Franchot has an idea who is to blame: Pennsylvania and New York.
“To be blunt,” said Franchot, “We’re literally drowning in Pennsylvania’s trash. I have a problem with that. Imagine if I threw my trash in my neighbor’s yard.”
His comments sparked a discussion among the three members of the state’s Board of Public Works — Franchot, Gov. Larry Hogan and Treasurer Nancy Kopp — about the cleanup of the bay and the responsibility that must be shared by states along the Susquehanna River.
During his comments Franchot leveled pointed criticisms at what he implied were narcoleptic responses to the problem by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican. He told both to “wake up.”
“Not to get personal, I have a lot of respect for Congressman Andy Harris: Wake up, this is your bed, in your district. Get action-oriented,” said Franchot.
A spokesman for Harris did not respond to a request for comment.
The comptroller said Pennsylvania “needs to start acting like a good neighbor” and taking responsibility for its land use and other policies that could reduce bay pollution.
“The upstream states, New York and Pennsylvania, need to step up and take responsibility for the sediment that is flowing into our bay,” said the governor, adding that Exelon, which operates the Conowingo Dam, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency also need to be better partners.
Hogan, the current chairman of the six-state Chesapeake Bay Executive Council, said he plans on raising the issue at the panel’s meeting next week.
“I can assure you they will leave the meeting with a crystal clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities,” said Hogan.
Over the last four years, Hogan has repeated called for more pollution and sediment control along the East Coast’s longest river. The Susquehanna stretches 464 miles from New York to its terminus in the Chesapeake Bay and provides about half the estuary’s fresh water.
Officials also claim that the river is responsible for more than half the nitrogen pollution that flows into the bay and contributes to algae blooms and dead zones.
A 2017 study found that the Conowingo Dam, built in 1928, was no longer able to stop sediment from flowing downstream.
Hogan has called for dredging at the dam and solicited private contractors for innovative ideas to do the job and also deal with dredge spoils in cost-effective and environmentally sound ways.
The state has also imposed stricter water quality standards on Exelon, owner of the dam, which could be forced to pay more than $170 million in fees annually. The power company has filed suit in state and federal court claiming the standards make Exelon “responsible for cleaning up pollution that it did not create and has no reasonable way to remove.”
The fees, the company said, would be more than the value of the dam.
Environmentalists called on states to ramp up efforts to deal with pollution control in the face of climate change.
“We are currently seeing a very ugly incident,” said Lisa Feldt, vice president of environmental protection and restoration at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. “It is a stark visual reminder of the pollution that flows into the bay each and every day. While scientific studies have indicated that phosphorus and sediment are scoured from behind the dam during high-flow events, on average upstream sources account for the majority of the pollution.”
“Science says that climate change will make these significant storm events more frequent,” added Feldt. “While Pennsylvania is furthest behind and must accelerate its progress to get back on track, EPA’s most recent assessment shows that every state needs to make additional investments to reduce pollution and restore water quality. Those investments will help the bay to become more resilient to significant weather events like the one we saw recently.”