By Scott Edwards
When is an award really greenwashing? When it recognizes a scheme that perpetuates pollution of our waterways as innovative.
Tonight, the U.S. Water Alliance, a Washington-based water policy organization, will hand the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) its 2015 United States Water Prize for its work promoting water pollution trading in the highly polluted Ohio River Basin.
In a press release, a former EPA official called the EPRI project impressive, noting that “…companies now have an opportunity to receive turn-key verified credits to meet their stewardship goals, address compliance needs, support farms, and protect ecosystems.”
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The problem is, water pollution trading is a market-based scheme that does none of that. But polluting industries, like coal-fired plants, and their front groups promote it as a way to avoid upgrading their facilities to protect our threatened waterways. For over 40 years, the Clean Water Act (CWA) has demanded that these industries implement increasingly advanced pollution reduction technologies towards the Act’s ultimate goal of eliminating discharges from our waterways. But companies don’t like to be regulated. So, with EPRI’s pay-to-pollute program, proven methods of regulating pollution under the CWA are being significantly eroded and our rivers, streams and bays will pay the price.
Water pollution trading is essentially a scam. The untested theory is that agriculture operations that discharge nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich manure into our nutrient-impaired waterways can cheaply reduce their discharges through the implementation of best management practices (BMPs) like grass buffers. These BMPs generate pollution “credits” that the agriculture operations sell to EPRI’s power plant Board members who want to avoid controlling their own nitrogen and phosphorus discharges. Trading proponents label this approach as a “win/win,” and they’re right. Power plants win because they get to keep on polluting and agricultural operations win because they can continue to avoid regulation while making money from the sale of the credits (and installing BMPs that are never subject to monitoring and discharge verification).
Industry wins and agriculture wins—but our rivers lose. In fact, the list of successful pilot trades EPRI and others trumpet in support of their approach are anything but.
Take, for example, the trading plan concocted for the Alpine Cheese factory in Ohio. Alpine Cheese has been a chronic violator of its CWA permit as it dumped excess amounts of nutrients into the impaired Sugar Creek. Back in 2006, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA) crafted a trading plan that allowed Alpine Cheese to fund the implementation of BMPs of local dairy operations in lieu of forcing the factory to adhere to permit limits to meet Sugar Creek’s water quality standards. That five-year plan called for biannual inspections of all the participating dairy operations to “verify” that the BMPs were installed and effective. OEPA, the Agency charged with protecting waterways in the state, wasn’t even allowed to take part in this water quality inspection and verification plan because in a 2005 letter, Ohio Representative Bob Gibbs told the Agency to stay off the farms.
We have retrieved a number of public records related to the Alpine Cheese trading scheme, as well as several records related to the Pennsylvania trading program. What we’ve found is disturbing (perhaps it’s not too late for the Alliance to ask for its award back.)
The agreement called for biannual farm inspections for Alpine Cheese over the five-year period – a total of 10 inspection reports for each operation in the program. What we found, instead, was a small smattering of inspection checklists representing a fraction of these mandated reports. There was no monitoring done to verify farm nutrient reduction, and no confirmation of actual results. At the same time, Alpine Cheese continued to regularly violate even its relaxed nutrient permit standards while OEPA stood by. And the Sugar Creek that was supposed to be the beneficiary of this “innovative” new approach to water quality? That remains on Ohio’s nutrient impaired list without any evidence that overall water quality is improving.
The Ohio River Basin is also the “beneficiary” of the ongoing Pennsylvania trading program that we are also scrutinizing. There, third party manure brokers are making money by moving tons of poultry factory farm manure out of the southeast corner of the state where it poisons the Susquehanna River and the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Transport manifests show that hundreds of tons of manure are being driven across the state to the southwest corner of Pennsylvania to be dumped. That’s the corner of the state that sits in the Ohio River Basin, where EPRI is operating its own manure-shifting program.
If innovation is moving piles of manure around the country from one impaired waterway to another, allowing a highly-polluting industrial agricultural operation to continue discharging into our waterways, and giving power plants a way out of complying with permits—and controlling their own discharges—then EPRI deserves even more awards. It’s a shame, though, that they would come at the expense of clean water and communities.
Call on the Environmental Protection Agency to PROTECT the Clean Water Act and REJECT water pollution trading schemes.