Bay pollution trading stirs mixed feelings

Officials look to cut costs, critics fear cleanup could suffer

  • Under nutrient trading, sewage plant operators and cities and counties facing steep pollution control costs might pay farmers to plant cover crops, such as this barley planted on a farm near Hillsboro.
Under nutrient trading, sewage plant operators and cities… (Glenn Fawcett, 2008 )
May 04, 2012|Tim Wheeler

Could pollution "trading" really shave billions of dollars from the costs of restoring the Chesapeake Bay?  Or would the long-running cleanup effort suffer at the hands of those looking to make a buck on it?

A study presented Thursday to the Chesapeake Bay Commission suggests there could indeed be significant cost savings from letting polluters pay others to make less expensive reductions in bay-fouling nutrient pollution elsewhere.  RTI International, an economic consulting firm from Research Triangle Park NC, found that savings could range from 20 to 80 percent, depending on how trading is structured.

That's music to the ears of local and state officials.  They've been wondering how they're going to be able to afford to comply with the bay "pollution diet" imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which calls for reductions of 20 to 25 percent in nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment getting into the bay. Maryland has estimated its share of the accelerated cleanup effort could be $15 billion over the next 13 years, and Virginia officials have tallied costs in the same ballpark.

"As a conservative, I'm not supposed to say 'cap' and 'trade' in the same sentence," said Emmett W. Hanger Jr., a Republican state senator from Virginia who is chairman of the bay commission. "But that's where we are."

If nutrient pollution could be reduced more cheaply elsewhere, operators of sewage treatment plants might not have to make expensive upgrades to their facilities.  Likewise, cities like Baltimore and larger suburban counties wouldn't need to spend tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars a year retrofitting storm drains and ripping up pavement to reduce polluted runoff from streets and parking lots.

"If they could purchase credits to meet even a fraction of the necessary pollution reductions, the cost-savings would be significant,” Beth McGee, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a press release about the study.

The most likely sources of those cheaper reductions would be the bay region's farmers, advocates say, who could plant "cover crops" in winter and leave grassy buffers along streams to control nutrient pollution.  Cover crops cost a few dollars per pound of nitrogen kept out of the water, while storm drain retrofits run into the tens of thousands of dollars per pound.

Trading advocates say farmers would only be allowed to get paid for conservation practices that go above and beyond what they're required to do to control polluted runoff from fertilizer and farm animals on their land.

EPA has given its tentative backing to nutrient trading plans set up by Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, though it's pushing to tighten them up.  Jeff Corbin, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson's adviser on the bay cleanup, acknowledged the appeal of getting private funding for for the cleanup at a time of tight government budgets.

"We struggle with where is the money going to come from," he said Thursday, just to put in place all the pollution-reduction practices needed on farms.

But others are skeptical about privatizing what has to date been an almost completely publicly funded and directed cleanup effort. They question the effectiveness of some farm conservation practices, they worry there won't be adequate oversight of trading, and they fear that redistributing pollution-reduction efforts to save money may shortchange some areas of the bay.

"The question is, can it be done effectively?  Can it be enforced?" asked Maryland state Sen.Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, a commission member.

"We've got to get it right this time," said former Maryland state Sen. Bernie Fowler of Calvert County.  Though the bay as a whole is reportedly showing signs of improvement, Fowler said the Patuxent River flowing by his home "is in worse shape today than it's ever been."

While not opposed to trying pollution trading, Fowler cautioned that officials must "make sure it's going to make a real difference."

"There's a lot of money at stake," he concluded.  "We've got to know at the eend of the line we're doing something real."

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