Next Friday, on December 8, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan’s administration is scheduled to release new regulations to promote a new water pollution control system called pollution trading.
It’s a scheme, originally invented by Republican policy makers, that allows sewage treatment plants, power plants and other polluters to pay for the right to pollute more if they send cash – through the purchase of pollution credits – to other facilities that pollute less.
The idea is provide a market-friendly alternative to strict government limits on pollution from individual plants and to avoid government mandates to install better pollution control systems.
“It really seems to be a policy more geared toward cutting costs than really reducing water pollution,” said Evan Isaacson, Chesapeake Bay policy analyst for the Center for Progressive Reform.
With Maryland lawmakers set to evaluate this new system, a new report by the Environmental Integrity Project documents how water pollution trading schemes already underway in neighboring Virginia and Pennsylvania create local pollution “hot spots” and undermine transparency and accountability for polluters.
My colleagues and I at the Environmental Integrity Project scrutinized federal and state records for 487 sewage and wastewater treatment plants across the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We found 12 sewage plants in Maryland that violated their permit limits last year, including in Salisbury, Frederick, Westminster and Baltimore. The worst problems were at Baltimore’s Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant, which discharged 3.7 million pounds of nitrogen pollution into the Patapsco River – four times its permitted limit.
When I asked the Maryland Department of the Environment about these problems, a spokesman said that the state “expects to issue stipulated penalties for ... violations” as specified by state law.
At least Maryland law allows penalties for violations like this, and at least the state is mandating that these sewage plants be upgraded and modernized. Maryland also has open records that allow citizens like me to find out which wastewater plants are breaking the law. This kind of accountability is not possible in Virginia or Pennsylvania, because they use opaque pollution credit trading systems.
In Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, the state allowed sewage plants in Front Royal and Strasburg – through the purchase of pollution credits -- to dump two and three times normally permitted levels of phosphorus pollution into the Shenandoah, although the historic waterway is already overloaded with phosphorus from farm manure runoff and suffering from algae blooms.
“Nitrogen and phosphorus are the two primary pollutants that are being dumped,” said Mark Frondorf, the Shenandoah Riverkeeper. “And they are being dumped because, quite honestly, it’s cheaper, better, faster, easier for wastewater treatment plants to buy credits on the credit exchange than to actually upgrade their facilities.”
In Pennsylvania, sewage plants that buy credits to pollute often fail to enter required information into a public online enforcement database maintained by EPA, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. This makes it impossible for the public to tell who is following the rules.
Virginia’s pollution trading system has a similar problem, in that it effectively keeps secret exactly who is selling the pollution credits.
“It undermines enforcement and it also legalizes pollution,” Frondorf said.
The bottom line is that – for the sake of the Chesapeake Bay -- Maryland should not follow its neighbors down the path to pollution trading. Although it is far from perfect, Maryland has a better, more traditional system that is more honest and transparent and is requiring more sewage plants to modernize and reduce pollution.