The limits of the Flush Tax

In the 13 years since Maryland adopted a “flush tax,” the now-$60 annual fee on water and sewer bills to reduce excess nutrients pouring into the Chesapeake Bay, there has been considerable progress in modernizing sewage treatment plants. Yet, as a study released last week by the Environmental Integrity Project notes, there is still much more improvement to be made: Last year, 12 Maryland sewage treatment plants were found in violation of their discharge permits, meaning they were pumping more nitrogen and phosphorus into state waterways than allowed under the law.

Maryland is hardly alone in this, as the report found violations elsewhere in the Chesapeake watershed in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, bringing the total to 21. Why so many violations in Maryland given the millions of dollars invested in state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plants in the Free State? More about that in a moment because the numbers are slightly misleading.

First, however, Maryland’s plant operators need to take their lumps, beginning right here in Baltimore. The city-owned Patapsco Wastewater Treatment Plant weighed in with the biggest violations, releasing 3.7 million pounds of nitrogen last year, or four times its permit allowance. So far in 2017, it doesn’t appear to be getting much better, the report notes, with the Patapsco plant still in serious violation as of August. Baltimore’s other plant (the state’s largest), Back River, wasn’t exactly a model operator either with 3.6 million pounds of nitrogen discharged last year, which was 29 percent over its 2016 allowance.

Both are behind schedule in promised improvements, but there is hope the city facilities and other violators may — with continued investment and accountability — eventually meet their targets. Yet soon there may be another factor that could affect their performance. They may have another option available to them other than upgrading their facilities to avoid violations. And that’s where Virginia and Pennsylvania and those misleading numbers come back into the picture.

In a matter of days, the Maryland Department of the Environment is expected to release new regulations to allow pollution credit trading. Here’s how such a system works: Let’s say you are a water polluter (a farmer with excess manure, a developer with polluting runoff or a sewage plant, for example) and you invest in improvements that allow you to exceed what the law requires of you. You would then be awarded “credits” that you could trade for cash to a polluter that has failed to meet pollution targets. In theory, it’s not unlike what Maryland and other Northeast states have done with greenhouse gas emissions and power plants.

Virginia and Pennsylvania have such trading programs, and that’s why they have far fewer sewage plants in violation. Many of them simply purchased pollution credits. They’ve made the calculation that it was cheaper to buy credits than face government penalties or perhaps invest in more permanent fixes. In theory, this uses market forces to reduce nitrogen and phosphorus in the most cost effective manner possible. Does it matter if nutrient levels in the Potomac were reduced by a farmer or a developer or a sewage treatment plant as long as they were reduced?

There are a myriad of challenges here. Unlike the smokestacks on power plants which are outfitted with monitors, it’s not always easy to estimate nutrient pollution from non-point sources like farm fields or parking lots. And then there is the danger of “hot spots,” where pollution credits may be generated in one place but purchased in another. That’s what happened in Virginia’s Shenandoah River, for example. Pollution was concentrated in that waterway, and it resulted in a federal lawsuit.

That’s why a pollution trading program has been slow to develop in Maryland. There are serious concerns about its cost and effectiveness. But we will have to wait and see what the Hogan administration devises. It’s clearly been a priority for Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles to develop a model program. But it would certainly be more attractive if Marylanders could be confident that the promise first offered by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. so many years ago, that municipal sewage treatment plants would no longer be such a leading source of pollution into the Chesapeake Bay, would first, and finally, be fulfilled.

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