WASHINGTON – Chesapeake Bay officials this month unveiled a proposal that would let Maryland polluters buy pollution “credits” from businesses and farms that exceed environmental standards for nutrient runoff.
The goal of the “Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Trading Guidance Document,” which is scheduled for public hearings throughout the region this week, is to encourage the reduction of nutrient-laden runoff by making clean water practices a marketable commodity.
“Businesses agree with having flexible, cost-effective approaches,” to bay cleanup, said George Kelly, a business member of the team of government, environmental and business representatives that crafted the guidelines.
Kelly, the president of Environmental Banc & Exchange, said there was widespread agreement among business, environmental and agricultural interests that nutrient trading could help prevent nitrogen and phosphorous runoff. He called the guidelines “a compromise. . .between those who want the market to take its course and those who prefer more government regulations.”
Environmentalists see some promise in nutrient trading programs, but worry that such programs could become licenses to pollute, said Andrew Fellows, the Chesapeake program director for Clean Water Action.
“The concept has some potential to reduce nutrient loads,” he said. “But it may serve as a horrible precedent to allow some polluters to pollute.”
The nutrient-trading plan was spearheaded by the Chesapeake Bay Program after officials at the multistate organization realized that states in the bay watershed were not going to meet nutrient reduction goals for 2000 that were laid out in the Chesapeake Bay Agreement.
Those voluntary goals called on states to reduce nitrogen and phosphorous runoff into the bay to 40 percent below 1985 levels. Officials expect that level will just get increasingly harder to reach as the region grapples with population growth and continued agricultural runoff.
According to 1999 Environmental Protection Agency data, Maryland’s 145 nutrient-impaired waterways ranks it in the worst 10 states in the nation. Excess nutrients can cause harmful algal blooms that deplete oxygen levels and lead to fish kills.
“We know that we are not going to quite meet nutrient reduction goals for this year,” said Allison Wiedeman, an environmental engineer at the Chesapeake Bay Program.
“So we needed to look for other ways to achieve nutrient reduction goals,” said Wiedeman, who was a member of the team that devised the nutrient trading proposal. “Trading provides communities with sensible, innovative ways to meet water quality objectives more quickly and at less coast overall.”
Wiedeman noted that businesses do not discharge the bulk of nutrients that go into the bay. That comes from “non-point” sources, like farms, roads and parking lots — anything that is not at the end of a pipe.
Lynne Hoot, of the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts, said that because agriculture produces a large amount of nutrient pollution, some farmers are concerned that nutrient-trading programs may disproportionately impact them.
“Farmers are a pretty cautious bunch and they are going to be resistant in case they are held liable for something they can’t reach,” said Hoot, an agricultural representative on the team that drafted the trading proposal.
She said that farmers fear selling or buying nutrient credits when unpredictable agricultural conditions could change their nitrogen and phosphorous discharge levels.
“It is much different than when you are dealing with a pipe,” Hoot said, referring to difficulty in measuring non-point pollution. Imprecise measurements could make swaps between point and non-point sources troublesome.
That is one reason why the guidelines recommend that states in the region begin their programs with trading only between like sources.
Kelly said businesses have their own concerns. He cautioned that the nutrient reduction goals should not be “too low” because “businesses may not agree if it (trading) poses a significant restraint on their operations.”
Despite their reservations, the team members think nutrient trading is the most workable option now to control runoff.
Hearings on the plan will be held throughout the bay region, with the first scheduled Tuesday at the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission headquarters in Laurel. It will be followed by a hearing on Wednesday at Hagerstown Community College and on Thursday in Holloway Hall on the Salisbury State University campus.
Wiedeman hopes that after public input is considered the states will be able to tailor the nutrient trading guidelines accordingly and introduce the programs early next year.
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