Historic Black town in Prince George’s Co. confronts power plant for contributing to flooding

James Jones lined his shoreline with rocks and wooden slates to curtail further erosion. (Elizabeth Shwe/Maryland Matters)

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When James Jones drives up to his one-acre property in Eagle Harbor, a small historically Black waterfront community on the southern tip of Prince George’s County, he is taken aback by the shimmering view of the Patuxent River, the longest river entirely within Maryland.

But as he walks toward the river’s edge and looks down, the Patuxent’s beauty escapes him. Jones remembers the heavy rainstorms that have eroded a large chunk of his shoreline. Fortifying his riverbank with large rocks has helped, but not enough. Neither did a silt barrier, as the force of stormwater rolling from a hill above the town and onto his property tore those down, he said.

Jones, 66, retired last December after working as a water technician for the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority for more than 30 years.

He lives in Fort Washington, but is restoring two boats — one pontoon and one fishing boat — in Eagle Harbor.

Jones wants to build his “dream” retirement home in Eagle Harbor, with a sunroom offering a panoramic view of the river. He has the blueprint ready, but his land is constantly wet, making it difficult to build a foundation. Storms have eroded so much shoreline over the last few years that it has made it difficult to build a dock for his boats, he said.

“When I look at the shoreline, I see a mess,” Jones said. “The shoreline has been totally destroyed by the erosion coming from the stormwater that’s being sent down to us by the Chalk Point power plant.”

To figure out why his property is always saturated with water, Jones walked along a stream near his property earlier this year. He went about a mile into a wooded area, walking through thick underbrush to find the water’s source. He finally found himself standing outside the property fence of the Chalk Point Generating Station, a coal-burning power plant that has been operating next to Eagle Harbor for the last 60 years. What Jones found “baffled” him.

James Jones wants to build his “dream” retirement home on his one-acre property in Eagle Harbor, with a sunroom offering a panoramic view of the river. (Elizabeth Shwe/Maryland Matters)

Jones discovered a culvert pipe under Chalk Point’s property fence, with one side of the pipe within the power plant’s property and the other opening out to the town. The pipe appeared to discharge stormwater runoff from the power plant, down into Eagle Harbor and towards the Patuxent River. “I was baffled, upset and convinced that something was going on here that should not be going on,” Jones said.

It turns out that stormwater runoff from the Chalk Point power plant’s 140-acre switchyard, controlled by Pepco, flows through a 36-inch culvert pipe and down a hill into Coleman Creek, according to an inspection report by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The power plant was built by Pepco, which sold the plant in 2000 to Southern Energy Inc., which later merged into GenOn Energy. But Pepco retained some property on the plant, including the switchyard, which delivers the power generated at the power plant to the electric grid.

Water from Coleman Creek flows under Patuxent Boulevard through another smaller pipe, overflowing the creek’s banks in heavy storms and eventually discharging onto properties, including Jones’s, said James Crudup, the mayor of Eagle Harbor.

“You don’t have to be an environmental scientist to know that [transferring water from a larger pipe to a smaller pipe] is not going to work. The water will be all over the place,” Crudup said.

The power plant’s culvert pipe was unknown to the town until Jones discovered it, Crudup said.

Over the past few years, Eagle Harbor has endured more intense and frequent floods, especially Coleman Creek, which overflows and deposits enormous amounts of sand and debris onto the town’s roads and residents’ yards. Once, an entire block was full of sand and took about three weeks to clean out, Crudup said. And the creek can inundate private properties with water for days.

Eagle Harbor, which has 69 residents, has no full-time, paid municipal staff. It is run by one mayor and four commissioners, all of whom work part-time. So the town does not have the capacity to resolve problems on a 24-hour basis, Crudup said.

Crudup said that in 10 years as mayor, he has not seen such severe floods until the last two years, during which five large storms occurred. Heavy rainfalls cause significant stormwater runoff into Coleman Creek, which is critical in draining heavy rainfall out of the town. The creek’s banks have reshaped and collapsed over time.

In 2017, Eagle Harbor received a grant from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to restore Coleman Creek, in part by reconnecting sections of the creek to existing flood plains to slow its flow into the Patuxent River.

But this restoration effort faced roadblocks when property owners along the creek, such as Jones, did not sign an agreement with the county. Now, the entire Coleman Creek restoration project is in limbo because of the recent discovery of Chalk Point’s 36-inch culvert pipe, Crudup said.

“Now, it’s a totally new ballgame with the power plant involved,” Crudup said. “We’re not going to accept anything less than them fixing the problem that they’ve caused that we thought we were totally responsible for,” Crudup said.

In April, the Maryland Department of the Environment met with Crudup, James Jones, Chalk Point representatives and the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment about the culvert pipe issue.

MDE inspector Renato Cuizon wrote in a four-page inspection report that the power plant’s culvert pipe was “in poor condition,” with gullies forming right outside of it. Cuizon also noted that there was “significant slope erosion” around where the stormwater discharge and Coleman Creek run together.

Cuizon concluded that the stormwater discharge from Chalk Point is “likely contributing to the town’s flooding” and over time “has created adverse impact to the Coleman Creek,” causing channel bank erosions and funneling sediment downstream into the town.

Another concern was a brown oily substance visible in the water just outside Chalk Point’s culvert pipe. Brown residue also lined the culvert pipe’s walls. Jones said he saw the same brown water on his shoreline.

Cuizon reported that the “brown-tea like color” of some areas in Coleman Creek was a “natural occurrence from decaying plant material.” He also wrote that he did not see or smell any petroleum products in the creek and did not request a water quality test for the stormwater runoff from the plant.

However, residents have been asking the Prince George’s County Department of the Environment to test the water in Coleman Creek, but to no avail. Crudup said he is working on getting the water tested, depending on negotiations with Pepco.

According to the Maryland Department of the Environment, a switchyard does not need to obtain a stormwater permit from the state.

Prince George’s County regulates stormwater management, so the county is responsible for overseeing those actions, MDE spokesman Jay Apperson said.

Neither Prince George’s County nor Pepco said when the culvert pipe was installed. And Linda Lowe, a public information officer for Prince George’s County Department of the Environment, did not immediately answer whether Pepco needed a permit from the county’s stormwater management program.

Mayor Crudup thought MDE should have cited Pepco with an infraction.

Allowing Chalk Point to discharge stormwater into Eagle Harbor without a permit is “like a smack in the face saying: ‘You don’t count, we didn’t have to get a permit for you, you’re just a little black township,’” Crudup said. “That’s the way it seems.”

In 1929, Eagle Harbor was incorporated as a resort community that drew middle-class Black families from the Washington, D.C., area. It became a haven for Black families who were denied access to beaches during segregation. During holidays, sometimes a hundred or more people gather in Eagle Harbor’s collection of small cottages and bungalows. But 69 people live there most of the year.

Most residents view Chalk Point’s proximity as a stain on their community, decreasing property values and turning people away from wanting to live in the area.

Last year, GenOn Holdings, Inc. announced that it would cease its coal operations by June 1 because of “unfavorable economic conditions and increased costs associated with environmental compliance.” Two coal-fired units were listed as deactivated by the plant’s transmission organization earlier this week; the plant will continue to operate its other non-coal power plants at Chalk Point, which have 1,600 megawatts generating capacity.

Cuizon, the MDE inspector, asked GenOn and Pepco, both of which own portions of the Chalk Point facility, to work with Prince George’s County and the town to stop discharging stormwater into Eagle Harbor and to repair the damages already done.

In a letter to MDE, GenOn Executive Vice President Daniel McDevitt wrote that the stormwater at issue is coming from a switchyard owned by Pepco.

In late May, Pepco wrote to MDE that, by the end of June, it will repair gullies forming near the culvert pipe, stabilize eroded slopes and install small dams to reduce the speed of stormwater runoff and to prevent more sediment from going into Coleman Creek.

Pepco representatives also wrote that they will coordinate with the mayor and make sure he is notified of the company’s progress and the results.

Crudup called Pepco’s response “presumptuous and unacceptable.” Crudup said he wants Pepco to remove the culvert pipe, stop discharging stormwater into the town and compensate Eagle Harbor for the damage it has done to Coleman Creek, as well as “for all the anxiety and trouble we’ve gone through for years because of their negligence.”

“I am not satisfied with piecemeal stuff,” he said. Crudup said he is talking with the town’s environmental attorney and will meet Pepco next week to negotiate how to resolve the issue.

“I can say very likely that there will be a lawsuit,” he said, if Pepco does not remove the culvert pipe.

“The county should have prevented [Pepco] from putting that pipe there without contacting the town,” Crudup said. “You can’t just stick a pipe in somebody else’s property.”

Fred Tutman, the Patuxent Riverkeeper who also serves as an adviser to Eagle Harbor, said that Pepco seems to be complying with MDE’s requirements, but not responding to the town’s wishes.

“I think Eagle Harbor is looking for some reckoning, for some acknowledgement that this pipe shouldn’t be there in the first place,” Tutman said. “What happens next, as far as whether the pipe stays or whether the pipe goes, is secondary to an acknowledgment.”

Tutman said he thought it was disrespectful for Pepco not to apologize to the town and to immediately set up a meeting with the mayor to work on a resolution, instead of communicating primarily through the state.

To Tutman, this is a model case of environmental injustice.

“It’s a classic situation of a big, wealthy corporation with lots of resources that seems to be dragging its feet on coming to a reckoning with the town,” a less empowered party that is seeking justice but hasn’t had an audience, Tutman said.

Crudup agreed that it is an environmental injustice. “We’re a Black township, and that’s generally where the injustice occurs,” Crudup said.

Jones said he would be happy if the power plant company restored his shoreline and diverted stormwater away from his property.

“I feel like the view would be amazing, but now that view has been destroyed by the recklessness and the carelessness of that power company,” he said.

Despite heavier rains and floods in the last few years, Jones said he not giving up on building his retirement “dream home.” He hopes to turn it over to his 17-year old daughter when he is not around anymore.

“I have been planning this home ever since I’ve owned the property 20 years ago. I think it’s the best view of the river.” Jones said. “This is a key to the country — from my shoreline, I can make it to the ocean.”

This article was written by WTOP’s news partners at Maryland Matters and republished with permission. Sign up for Maryland Matters’ free email subscription today.

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