Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Maryland: ‘We’re drowning in Pennsylvania’s trash’

The record rains of July in Maryland carried debris over the Conowingo Dam, which regulates from the Susquehenna River, which flows through Pennsylvania. The debris choked docks in the Chesapeake Bay and eventually made its way into local waterways.

Debris washed into Maryland waters from record rainfall accumulates around a sailboat in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.
Debris washed into Maryland waters from record rainfall accumulates around a sailboat in Annapolis, Md., on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2018.Read moreAP

Heavy rains and flood waters that flowed into the Chesapeake Bay in July might have exposed a serious problem along Maryland's border: Pennsylvania.

Record rains carried tons of sediment and debris over the Conowingo Dam, which regulates flow from the Susquehanna River coming out of Pennsylvania five miles upstream. The five days of rains from July 22 to 27 were so intense that the river ran three feet above flood stage, forcing Exelon — the power company that operates the dam — to open 20 flood gates. Flows at the dam exceeded 300,000 cubic feet per second, a rate not seen since Tropical Storm Lee in 2011.

As the gates opened, trash, wood, plastic, and other objects came spilling out into a mass thick enough that it completely surrounded boats and docks miles downstream. Sediment containing polluted suburban and agricultural runoff also poured out.

"To be blunt, we're literally drowning in Pennsylvania's trash, and I have a huge problem with that," said Peter Franchot, Maryland's comptroller.

Last week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan complained about the debris, pointed to Pennsylvania as one of the culprits in the pollution, and called the situation "an economic and ecological crisis" before a meeting of the Maryland Board of Public Works. State officials said trees, tires, and garbage were floating in the bay, creating a hazard. They have also pointed fingers at Exelon.

Patrick McDonnell, secretary of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, called the remarks from the Maryland officials, "careless and insensitive," noting that two Pennsylvanians died in the flooding.

Hogan and McDonnell are both set to attend the executive council meeting for the Chesapeake Bay Program Tuesday. The program is a partnership between Maryland, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. Hogan said he would raise the issue at the meeting.

McDonnell said Monday in a statement that he plans to "outline Pennsylvania's extensive efforts and new initiatives to improve stream and river health throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed" as well as highlight the strides it has already made.

This is far from the first time Maryland and Pennsylvania have fought over cross-border pollution.

Last year, Maryland threatened to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over failing to prevent smog-inducing pollution from Pennsylvania and other states from drifting over its border. The Maryland Department of the Environment singled out power plants in Pennsylvania and other states for what it said was a failure to use pollution-control equipment and for emitting nitrogen oxides, which combine with volatile organic compounds in sunlight to create ground level ozone, or smog.

Just last week, the EPA released a report on a federal effort to clean up the Chesapeake Bay by 2025. The agency said the states in the watershed "have made considerable progress" in reducing bay pollution. That includes record acreage of underwater grasses and the highest estimates of water quality standards attained in more than 30 years.

Though other states were also behind in some areas of cleanup, Pennsylvania scored the worst in agricultural and urban and suburban runoff, a major source of pollution.

Pennsylvania is particularly important for the cleanup. Though the Susquehanna River originates in New York, it flows the entire length of Pennsylvania and supplies half the bay's fresh water at a rate of 18 million gallons a minute.  It has been estimated that 30 to 40 percent of the Chesapeake Bay's pollution comes from the Susquehanna.

"Pennsylvania is far behind," William C. Baker, president of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said when the EPA report was released. "The Commonwealth must fund proven clean water initiatives specifically associated with helping farmers. If the state legislature does not fund efforts to reduce pollution in its next session, EPA must hold Pennsylvania accountable."

Baker cited the state legislature's failure to approve more funding. Indeed, there is ongoing debate in Pennsylvania over how to best establish a permanent clean water fund.

But the Pennsylvania DEP says the state has made progress in improving the quality of water within the Susquehanna watershed. The DEP says it has a statewide initiative to plant 95,000 acres of forest buffers. Farm inspections have increased. And the state is using data to focus on areas where efforts will have the biggest impact.

Regardless, Maryland is still dealing with the July debris and fears climate change will only bring more such events, said Ben Grumbles, the secretary of the state's Department of Environment. Officials were still coping with the debris and trash on the surface of the water, as well as potential pollution under the surface, when they were monitoring a controlled dam breach Monday at Cascade Lake to alleviate pressure after being swollen beyond capacity from the weekend's heavy rains.

"We're seeing more extreme events, Grumbles said. "The science is clear."