Robert Wieland’s recent forum piece, “Amount of pollution, not cost should determine trading’s worthiness,” (December 2014) supported the use of market-based water pollution trading approaches in the Bay, arguing that paying his widget factory neighbor to reduce pollution was just as beneficial to water quality as his own widget factory reduction.
But it’s not widget factories whose pollution is choking the Bay. It’s unaccountable factory farms.
Wieland’s analysis breaks down for several reasons. For example, if your neighbor or, more likely in the case of water pollution trading, the factory owner 50 or 100 miles upstream decides to sell you the right to pollute so you can dump even more pollution from your own factory, it means that the waterway where you discharge your pollution will be more degraded than it should be if you didn’t pay to pollute.
Wieland may be right that, all things being equal, somewhere downstream, perhaps in the Bay, the pollutant load will be the same because of this pollution swapping, but that’s one of the inherent problems with water-pollution trading: It’s a willingness to sacrifice local water quality in the hope of attaining downstream compliance.
Such an approach has major environmental justice implications where poorer communities and those of color typically exist alongside polluters that increase their own discharges with the purchase of pollution credits, just so more affluent people can spend their summer weekends boating in what is hoped to be a cleaner Bay.
But here’s another major defect in Wieland’s theory — trading is not being implemented to address widget factories and the simplistic setup that he offers. Widget factories, and all other end-of-pipe sources of water pollution, are already adequately regulated under the Clean Water Act. Under this transformative 1972 law, factories — power plants, manufacturers and wastewater treatment facilities — are required to use the best available technology to minimize pollutant discharges. Two widget factories should both be installing state-of-the-art reduction technology to address their pollution, not buying credits from each other to avoid operating cleanly. And for economists who are so concerned about the costs of such reductions, the act even has a safety net built in that these technologies have to be “economically achievable.”
Instead, pollution trading is being introduced as yet another incentive to tackle the biggest polluter of the Bay — industrial agriculture. In Maryland, the biggest contributor to the Bay’s downward spiral is the unsustainable poultry industry and its hundreds of thousands of tons of excess manure produced each year on the Eastern Shore, where it is dumped on saturated farm fields. The factory farms that house all these birds, unlike the end-of-the-pipe sources that Wieland uses in his scenario, never have to measure or monitor their own pollution discharges. So when his widget factory buys his 40 pounds of pollution credits from a factory farm, no one will ever know whether the farm has actually removed those 40 pounds of pollution from the local waterway. This means that there is a strong likelihood that the Bay will see net increases in the amount of pollution entering it because of pollution trading.
While Wieland’s piece focuses much on what is “equitable,” he misses the larger question of equity involved here. Is it equitable that all urban Marylanders are forced to pay a flush tax every year to clean up after themselves while the poultry industry continues to pollute the Bay at will, without any required financial contribution to Bay restoration? Is it equitable for major companies like Perdue to burden its contract growers with the hundreds of tons of manure from Perdue’s birds instead of taking responsibility for its own waste? Is it equitable for Maryland taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on cover crops, manure storage sheds and transport programs in a failing effort to keep this industry from destroying the Bay?
Water pollution trading is coming to Maryland because the farm lobby is powerful enough to browbeat the state’s policy-makers into refusing to hold industrial agriculture responsible for its own pollution. And now, with trading, they’re even willing to sacrifice the accountability we used to have with other polluters, like widget factories, under the Clean Water Act
Naturally, economists see economic efficiency as the paradigm under which we can solve all our problems, but that simply is not the case. While it is undeniably true that it is cheaper for industries to pretend to clean up their mess with the purchase of pollution credits than actually control their discharges, what is cheapest is not always what is best for our communities.
Let the marketplace control the cost of Wieland’s widgets, but it should have no place in deciding the quality of our waterways.