Does pollution trading open a loophole for pollution dodging?

14 December 2012

We hear a lot these days about carbon credits and carbon trading – basically a financially-linked means of balancing carbon emissions between big and small polluters.  While sound in theory, to a degree, the approach is open to wealthy, big polluters being able to dodge having to make any real changes to their total emissions.  Similar approaches have recently been mooted for nutrient pollution, both for nitrogen which principally impacts on the marine environment (bay and coastal discharges) and phosphorus, the big culprit in the freshwater realm.

A nutrient trading scheme has been proposed for the Chesapeake Bay area (readers of Droplets will know about the problems in this part of the USA) – a scheme that has been challenged by the John Hopkins Center for a Liveable Future.  They, the CLF, are of the opinion that the proposal will allow entities previously rated as Zero Discharge, to now be able to trade their obvious credits to other polluters not similarly rated.  The alternative is to simply (and wisely) exclude the Zero Discharge operations from the scheme altogether.  The latest water quality report for Chesapeake Bay can be found here.

This report found that:

… nitrogen discharges from industrial and municipal sewage treatment plants to the Chesapeake Bay watershed declined significantly in Maryland and Virginia in 2011, thanks to a big public investment in sewage treatment upgrades in both states.  Pennsylvania nitrogen loadings from these point sources actually increased 4 percent in 2011, moving that state further from achieving Bay water quality goals that begin to take effect in 2017. 

At the same time, illegal discharges from municipal and industrial sources in all states added nearly 800,000 pounds of nitrogen and phosphorus to the Chesapeake Bay watershed in 2011, with more than 12 percent of the largest facilities being out of compliance with permit limits  for three months or longer.

The other way of managing the various contributions to the total pollution load for a particular watershed or waterbody is the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) approach.  A TMDL is a calculation of the maximum amount of a pollutant that a waterbody can receive and still safely meet water quality standards.  There are lots of these in the USA – the most recent being that for Thunderbird Lake in Oklahoma.

A third approach is simply to set enforceable and meaningful limits on pollution, to be applied at the point of discharge, for example those which have been the focus of much heated discussion in Florida.  By the way, the Lambertville Reservoir in Florida has a toxic algal bloom! – with a report that correctly asserts:

It appears current reservoir management strategies are reactive and inconsistent. Control of noxious algae requires a proactive approach to adequately protect Lambertville’s water resources.

Anabaena mats forming in a Dubai man-made lake (Photo: Bill Harding)

Two algal blooms have been reported this week from New Zealand – these being in Otago at Lake Waihola south of Dunedin and the upper Tomahawk lagoon, where a mat-forming species of Anabaena has been identified.  The mat-forming species of blue-green algae can be particularly nasty as the water can be crystal clear, yet full of toxins produced by the algal carpet on the bottom.  Dried out “patties” of algae on the shoreline can be extremely toxic and dog deaths are commonly associated with these being eaten.

 

 

 

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