Pollution-trading policy for waters announced by EPA

Environmentalists protest plan that will sell rights to exceed legal standards

January 14, 2003|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

Industries, farmers and others will be able to buy and sell the right to release pollutants into the nation's waterways under a policy announced yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency. The move drew immediate criticism from environmental groups, which charged that the policy violates the Clean Water Act.

Under the Water Quality Trading Policy, polluters that discharge industrial, municipal or agricultural contaminants into waterways are allowed to reduce their discharges below federal clean water standards, then sell the unused portion of their allowance as credits to polluters trying to meet water quality standards.

By changing crop practices, for example, a farmer could create credits planting shrubs and trees next to a stream. The farmer could sell the credits to a municipal wastewater treatment plant that has higher pollution control costs and must meet water quality limits in its permit.

It was unclear yesterday when the policy would go into effect. However, the EPA has budgeted more than $800,000 to implement the program and is backing 11 pollution-trading projects planned around the country.

Two of projects are aimed at reducing nitrogen emissions in watersheds of the Chesapeake Bay - one seeks reductions in the Conestoga River in Pennsylvania, a bay tributary; the other is developing an Internet-based nitrogen-trading board for bay polluters.

EPA officials said that by creating a market-based incentive to improve the environment, the policy will increase the pace of cleaning up polluted rivers, streams and lakes and reduce the cost of improving water quality.

But the Natural Resources Defense Council, a coalition of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists, says the policy violates the Clean Water Act by not encouraging the protection of all waterways.

"Under this scheme, the water quality in some of our lakes, streams and rivers will be traded away for the benefit of other waterways," Nancy Stoner, director the group's Clean Water Project, said in statement yesterday. "The EPA is trading good quality water for bad."

The group also said the policy fails to require polluters to reduce emissions over time, helping them evade compliance and allowing them to trade toxic pollutants, such as mercury, that build up in the environment.

Community groups oppose toxic pollutant trading, the group said, because it could create environmental hot spots.

"Poor communities, disadvantaged communities and minority communities will bear the brunt of this misguided policy," Stoner said. "They are the least likely to have the resources to protect themselves from corporate polluters."

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