Nutrient trading is likely coming to Maryland soon.

Federal and state regulators are hoping that the state will have the most robust and well-verified program in the country. It will, they hope, serve as a model for other states and regions interested in nutrient trading.

At a nutrient trading forum recently, many policymakers, farmers, and private-sector economists talked about how the program would work. Many spoke of skeptics - more than a few of whom were in attendance - and stressed that nutrient trading would not be an escape hatch for wastewater plants and power plants that wanted to avoid their pollution-reduction requirements.

“This is not going to replace the command and control system,” said Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles. ““It is absolutely imperative for safeguards to make sure we have transparency and accountability. Water quality trading will not succeed without that.”

The Maryland Grain Producers Association and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sponsored the forum, which was at Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore. Both groups believe that trading is the way forward.

But other environmental groups are skeptical of trading. Among them are the Patuxent Riverkeeper and Food and Water Watch. They worry that trading will result in more poor people bearing the brunt of environmental pollution while those who can afford to live on the “right” side of the trades reap the benefits.

Friday’s forum did not provide a lot of specifics on how trades would work. It was more of an overview on trading in the watershed. The EPA has criticized Pennsylvania’s program.  Virginia’s appears to be working, although it is small. Pennsylvania’s pollution reduction efforts are behind the other states, and the EPA has overall been critical of its programs and progress

Farmers and wastewater plant owners spoke of their excitement that Maryland would be getting a trading program. The Maryland Department of Agriculture has a web site, www.mdnutrienttrading.com, with more information on how trading will work.

Many attendees who came in skeptical left that way - not against trading, but not sure what it means. Who would be in charge of the trades? It looks like Maryland’s agriculture department in concert with its environment department, but it wasn’t entirely clear. Would trading rules go through a rule-making process?

Perhaps the most important questions: How many staff would the trading program need to monitor trades, verify them, and offer technical assistance? Where would this team be based? How would state officials ensure that those positions would not be cut? What would the standards be for trades? How many pollution credits can a buffer strip generate? Is there a model to enter the trades and make sure the math adds up? What happens when a practice that has been traded in the past is proven to not be as effective as original estimates?

“It’s pretty darn simple,” said George Kelly, chief marketing officer, of Resource Environmental Solutions, when it was his turn to talk about trading.

Which led this reporter to think, “Nutrient trading is many things. But simple it is not. “