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Pa. officials admit lagging in bay cleanup efforts

Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection, speaks with reporters following a meeting on the Chesapeake Bay. (Bryan P. Sears)

Patrick McDonnell, Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection, speaks with reporters following a meeting on the Chesapeake Bay. (Bryan P. Sears)

Pennsylvania found itself in the middle — not just geographically — of New York and Maryland over concerns about upstream debris polluting the Chesapeake Bay.

“We are clearly behind in terms of a mid-point assessment but we’ve taken that as an opportunity to double down,” said Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “One of the things that gets lost is talking about support for our farmers. Keeping the soils on their properties.”

McDonnell, sitting near the end of a table of state and federal officials attending the Chesapeake Executive Council meeting Tuesday, found himself wedged between Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and a New York official who all but blamed the pollution problems on Pennsylvania.

“Right now, New York’s water, as it leaves New York state down the Susquehanna River, is high quality,” said James Tierney, deputy commissioner for water resources with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. “If the water in the Chesapeake Bay were as good as the quality of the water as it leaves New York … the Chesapeake Bay would not be impaired.”

McDonnell said the same storms that flushed debris into the bay this summer caused “an overwhelming issue” in Pennsylvania with flood damage and deaths.

“It was a hugely tragic event for us,” sad McDonnell. “A lot of our focus for us was protection of life and protection of property within the state,”

McDonnell said more help is needed in the way of technical assistance from the federal government for farmers in his state and attributed 80 percent of the runoff issues to the 33,000 farms that are in the bay watershed in his state.

“Pennsylvania does not touch the Chesapeake Bay,” McDonnell said. “We don’t have blue crabs, tourism, the oysters. But the value proposition for us is water quality.”

McDonnell said the state is committed to working with neighboring states to improve the water quality of the bay by controlling pollution in each watershed state.

Tierney added that states need to work together to develop strategies to deal with increased heavy storm activity attributed to climate change, calling it “make or break” for improving bay health.

Hogan, speaking Tuesday, struck a more conciliatory tone than he had earlier this month,. thanking officials from the two upstream states for their efforts and for agreeing to work toward stronger water quality standards.

“One of our priorities is finding a way to address the problem of debris and sediment from the Susquehanna River that flows over the Conowingo Dam into the bay,” said Hogan, noting the large amount of debris flushed into the bay after a series of storms in July.

Hogan said the majority of that flows from upstream, where the Susquehanna starts near Cooperstown, New York, and passes through Pennsylvania before terminating into the bay in Maryland.

“We’ve been calling on our upstream partners to do their fair share to keep our waterways clean and safe,” said Hogan.

Less than a week ago, Hogan called on New York, Pennsylvania and Exelon, the operator of the Conowingo Dam, to do more to protect the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland’s governor said last week that the two states would leave Tuesday’s meeting with an understanding of their responsibilities in helping control downstream pollution from debris, sediment and runoff nutrients.

Exelon Monday pledged $25,000 to clean-up efforts after Hogan called on the owner and operator of the dam to do more.

“The state and local communities’ adjacent waterways that flow into the bay must join focused efforts to significantly reduce pollution and debris entering the bay,” said a spokeswoman for the utility. “The Conowingo Dam is Maryland’s largest renewable energy source and cannot be held responsible for pollutants entering the bay from upstream communities.”

Exelon is suing the state over new conditions placed on permits for the dam. Failure to comply could carry up to $170 million in fines and penalties.

Hogan called Exelon’s offer “a drop in the bucket.”

The Maryland Democratic Party used the meeting to criticize Hogan on environmental issues.

“Larry Hogan has repeatedly sided with corporate polluters, whether it was vetoing the Democrats’ clean energy jobs bill or blocking regulations to reduce dirty coal and protect our Chesapeake Bay waters,” said Kathleen Matthews, party chairwoman, in a statement.


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