Fairness in the Bay

August 2012 / Abell-Supported Research / Environment

Environmental justice issues and nutrient trading, a report from the Center for Progressive Reform.

The Chesapeake Bay, the largest and most biologically diverse estuary in North America, has suffered from the effects of excess nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment pollution for decades. This pollution comes from urban wastewater treatment plants, agriculture, and runoff from urban parking lots and suburban sprawl. Agriculture is the biggest contributor of pollution, generating roughly 44 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorus that enters the Bay. The impacts of pollution—algal blooms, beach closures, fish consumption advisories, and dead zones—are getting worse. In 2011, the dead zone covered one-third of the Bay. Communities in the Bay region nevertheless rely on its waters and tributaries for sustenance, employment, and recreation. The ongoing failure to clean up the Bay hurts every community, and the Bay’s low-income and minority populations are particularly vulnerable.

In an effort to accelerate Bay restoration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established a “pollution diet” for pollution sources, known formally as the Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (Bay TMDL). The Bay TMDL imposes mandatory limits on the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment that can enter the Bay and its tributaries. As a result, Bay states have embraced water quality trading programs as one tool to achieve these limits in a cost-effective manner. Water quality trading aligns buyers—typically point sources—that are legally obligated to meet a specific environmental standard with sellers—typically nonpoint sources—that can meet that standard at a significantly lower cost. Trading sounds ideal on paper, but in practice it is an entirely different story. Despite the creation of trading programs in various locations throughout the country, nonpoint sources have been reluctant to participate. EPA and state governments have simply not had the necessary experience to fine-tune this pollution control tool.

As troubling, Bay states are largely ignoring the potential impact of trading on low-income and minority communities throughout the watershed. “Nutrient trading” is a clinical term that masks an unpleasant reality. The majority of trades that will ultimately occur around the Bay will involve excess manure generated by industrial-scale agriculture, stormwater runoff from urban sprawl, and sewage discharges and overflows from treatment plants. These discharges contain more than simply nutrients and sediment. Pathogens such as fecal coliform and cryptosporidium, antibiotics, cleaning fluids, heavy metals, synthetic fertilizers, and pesticides are often mixed in with nutrient pollution. When this untreated pollution flows into local waterways and ultimately the Bay, myriad human health and ecosystem impacts are inevitable.

This paper examines nutrient trading through the lens of environmental justice. It assesses the potential impacts of trading on low-income and minority communities and recommends ways to integrate environmental justice into trading programs in the Bay region.