Polluters that exceed federal clean water standards will soon have an alternative to reducing discharges or installing new controls buying credits from those polluting below their legal limits.
The plan "offers greater flexibility and incentives to states, tribes and companies to comply with the Clean Water Act," Environmental Protection Agency chief Christie Whitman claimed last week as she announced the proposal. EPA considers the proposal a policy change that does not require congressional approval, and intends to simply implement the plan by the end of the summer.
The plan is similar to a market-driven initiative the Bush administration wants for air pollution. The EPA already has emissions "trading programs" to reduce acid rain-causing sulfur dioxide and smog-forming nitrogen oxides.
Whitman claims the plan is aimed at reducing urban stormwater and sanitary sewer overflows, agricultural runoff and air pollutants that fall into waterways.
"Trading provides incentives for voluntary reductions from all sources to improve and maintain the quality of the nation's waters," she stated.
While the EPA says the amount of pollution would somehow balance out, environmentalists contend the Clean Water Act was not intended to allow for such trading.
Federal law requires industrial and municipal facilities to get permits from the EPA specifying the amount of pollutants they can legally discharge into rivers, lakes and streams.
The new program would let them buy credits from permit holders whose pollutants are below the permit level. Credit buyers then could legally pollute at higher levels than allowed in their permits without violating the law.
"This plans lacks the safeguards to ensure water quality improvement," said Nancy Stoner, director of the clean water project for Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. "The risk is that it will unravel existing Clean Water Act protections."
The EPA has started pilot projects to test the trading program at Cherry Creek Reservoir, Colorado; Long Island Sound, New York; Fox Wolf Basin, Wisconsin; Kalamazoo River, Michigan; Lower Boise River, Idaho; and the Chesapeake Bay in six states and the District of Columbia.
The NRDC, the Sierra Club, and other environmental groups asked the EPA in a letter to delay the new program until the agency has a way of measuring how this credit-trading plan would actually improve water quality, as Whitman claims.