Water pollution trading for the US

Trading in emissions of nutrients and other pollutants into water courses is on the cards in the US, where the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published its latest plans intended to reduce pollution, including diffuse pollution.

The EPA has published the policy designed to allow individual states to develop and use water quality trading programmes. Most of the trading will involve phosphorus, nitrogen, and sediments, which constitute a big pollution problem in the US, Lynda Wynn, Senior Policy Analyst at the EPA’s Office of Water said to edie. The costs of their control vary considerably between potential polluters, such as farmers and a large wastewater treatment plant, she added.

The scheme also comprises US$800,000 funding for 11 pilot projects across the country. These include a project to reduce nitrogen loads in a Chesapeake Bay tributary, and a scheme to cut selenium loads on the Lower Colorado River.

The new scheme lacks a cap for the total amount of pollution, notes campaign group Environmental Defense, and so may not protect water quality. “Under the right rules, water pollution trading can lower costs and help speed the clean-up of the nation’s waterways,” said Tim Searchinger, senior attorney at Environmental Defense. However, these must include a cap on pollution from all key sources – as has happened with the successful sulphur dioxide trading programme (see related story).

However, Wynn points out that there is a cap, in the form of total maximum daily loads (TMDLs), “which by definition (in the US Clean Water Act) is a pollution cap lower than current pollution levels, so all trading to meet TMDLs will reduce pollution”.

Wynn admits that in cleaner waters with no TMDL, the policy will allow a straight swap of pollution within the watershed with no net reduction. The state authorities will have to ensure that any new discharges will not degrade water quality, she added.

The World Resources Institute (WRI) has welcomed the new scheme, which, it says, is largely grounded in WRI research. “It is unusual to find an environmental organisation supporting administration policy,” said WRI Managing Director Paul Faeth, noting that he hopes this is the administration’s first step towards restoring confidence in the federal government’s commitment towards the environment.

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