There are a number of proposals being put forth at the local, state and national levels on how to pay for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Because the issue has been covered in Bay Journal many times, we know the causes of pollution and have both the technologies and the plans to make a restored Chesapeake watershed a reality. The missing component is funding.
As we move forward in finding the funding and analyzing the various proposals being placed on the table, I would suggest that there are three elements to consider, namely: tax the behaviors or products that society does not want; the polluter pays; and equity.
First, we should tax the behaviors and products that society does not want. We already do this with cigarettes and alcoholic beverages. Steep taxes have been levied on these products because society realizes that they are luxury items and their consumption can lead to cancer in the case of cigarettes, and drunkenness with all of its societal issues, including auto accidents, in the case of alcohol.
Likewise, this principal could be applied to behaviors and products being used in the Chesapeake Bay watershed that are causing increased nutrient and sediment flows into rivers and streams feeding the Bay. The revenues from these taxes could be used to fund the cleanup.
There are some proponents of this philosophy of taxing environmental ills who believe we could do away with all of our federal and state income taxes and fund our entire government operations though environmental taxes. They claim this would provide incentives for a clean environment while at the same time bolster activities to expand real personal income. That I will leave for a future column.
Second, we should ensure that the polluter pays. With big point source polluters, it is typically easy to locate where the pollution is coming from and to fine the polluters or make them pay a tax. But as much as 70 percent of the nutrient and sediment flowing into our region’s waterways are coming from nonpoint sources. For example, air emissions are coming from vehicles and runoff is coming from impervious surfaces such as concrete or blacktop on driveways, parking lots and roads.
The automobile manufacturer, who is a point source, is regulated in the production of vehicles and there are federal and state standards controlling the level of pollutants coming out of our cars’ exhaust pipes. But the nitrogen byproducts of exhaust are still polluting the waterways of the region.
At the same time, the concrete or blacktop facility is a point source and emissions and effluent loadings from these operations are also regulated and controlled. There are few jurisdictions, though, that regulate the amount of blacktop or concrete that is laid down, or tax the owners for the stormwater runoff that their impervious surface creates.
In a polluter pays environment, the owner of the car adding nitrogen pollution to the air and the owner of the blacktop/concrete increasing nutrient and sediment runoff would pay for the pollution that they create.
The third element of the various funding scenarios to consider is equity. Taxes on pollution should be based on the amount generated, not on an across-the-board set amount. I am talking about the difference between the owner of an SUV who drives 50,000 miles a year and an individual who drives a hybrid vehicle 3,000 miles a year. Equity might dictate that the SUV owner should pay more, possibly lots more.
Impervious surface is another area where equity issues might arise. Runoff is runoff whether it comes from the newly constructed subdivision that was finished yesterday or from Jamestown, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary. In any new regulations that consider impervious surface taxation, we should consider taxing all hard surfaces equally and not just new construction.
Working together, we can finish the job and create a Chesapeake region where, blue crabs, shad and children can thrive.