Nutrient Trading to Target Chesapeake Bay’s Water Quality

January 2013 / Abell Reports / Environment

Will the latest pollution ‘solution’ hurt minorities and the poor?

The decades-long push to clean up the badly polluted Chesapeake Bay has been a case study in the realities of life at the intersection of policy and politics. Over and over, policymakers in the Bay region have entered into agreements they hoped would be both effective and politically inoffensive to most voters. For the most part, though, policymakers have achieved only the latter. Meanwhile, the Bay has continued to degrade, and all those who depend upon it for their livelihood or for recreation have suffered as a result.

The latest push to clean up the Bay relies on a mechanism that has at different points enjoyed great political support from both ends of the political spectrum. It is a credit-trading scheme like the one used two decades ago to reduce acid-rain-causing emissions from power plants, and that has been proposed more recently as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Under this approach, polluters would be awarded pollution “credits” for lowering their total discharges significantly below permit levels by, for example, purchasing cleanup technologies that keep harmful nutrients out of the water. They could then sell those credits to other polluters in the state who expect to exceed their limits because they do not want to install such technologies. These market-based trades should mean that sources that can reduce pollution most efficiently are subsidized by others for whom such reductions would be quite expensive, thus lowering the overall expense of cleaning up the Bay.

A fierce debate is taking shape over how and whether such an approach will actually reduce pollution given the particular mix of polluters in the region, and the problems with reducing pollution from sources that don’t have permits to begin with—small farms or homeowners who use too much fertilizer, for example. That question will be examined in a court case recently filed by environmentalists in federal court in Washington, D.C. In the meantime, a new white paper from the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR), Fairness in the Bay: Environmental Justice and Nutrient Trading (Fairness in the Bay), examines another potential pitfall with trading. According to the white paper, unless policymakers take great care in designing the program, trading could result in the creation of pollution “hotspots,” specific areas with particularly excessive pollution. Such hotspots would likely take a particularly harsh toll on poor and minority communities in the region because such communities are often situated near significant pollution sources.