Bay pollution trading could hurt poor, minorities, group warns

Limits, transparency urged to prevent localized water-quality problems

  • Farms like these along the Chester River may be able to sell nutrient pollution "credits" by reducing their runoff. A new report warns against allowing such deals to permit worse water quality in urban areas.
Farms like these along the Chester River may be able to sell nutrient… (Jane Thomas, IAN, University…)
August 15, 2012|Tim Wheeler

Trading pollution "credits" to reduce the cost of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay risks endangering the health of the region's poor and minority communities, a new report warns.

The report by the Washingon-based Center for Progressive Reform contends that without explicit safeguards, water-quality trading programs being launched in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia could result in localized concentrations of nutrient pollution, most likely in urban areas with already degraded waters.

All three states have set up market-oriented trading programs aimed at reducing nutrient pollution fouling the bay. Farmers can earn "credits" by reducing largely unregulated runoff from their fields, which they can then sell to municipalities and industries that are under government orders to curb their discharges of the same pollutants.

Advocates contend trading programs can ease the fiscal burden municipalities face in trying to reduce pollution washing off their streets and seeping out of household septic tanks. Less costly cleanup options are needed, proponents say, as local governments face estimated cleanup costs in the hundreds of millions and even billions of dollars.

But the center warns that allowing municipalities and industries to pay farmers to reduce nutrient pollution elsewhere in the bay watershed could result in degraded "hot spots" where water quality gets worse - or at the least, does not improve.

"If, for example, you were to entice the farmers on the Eastern Shore to trade and Baltimore bought up all the credits," Rena Steinzor, the center's president said, "then you could end up with some very bad conditions in the Baltimore harbor, where people do fish." 

The center's concern echoes that expressed by a recent report to the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a regional legislative advisory group, which highlighted the potential benefits of trading but also cautioned against any tradeoff between bay restoration and worsening local water quality.

There is no specific prohibition against that happening in any of the states' trading programs, Steinzor said.  Only Pennsylvania's program, the center's report says, even mentions "environmental justice," the concept of ensuring that poor and minority communities are not burdened with more pollution than more affluent white areas.

The center says the states should be required to document how their trading programs won't create water-quality inequities.  The states ought to focus trading in the same watershed, the report urges, with a preference for having offsetting pollution reductions made upstream of a sewage plant or municipality purchasing the nutrient "credits."  They also ought to ensure that low-income and minority communities are informed about and engaged in any trades affecting them.

Steinzor said it is up to theU.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has imposed a baywide pollution reduction plan on the states, to require such safeguards.

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