Report claims nutrient trading is worsening river pollution

A recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project, an environmental advocacy nonprofit, accuses a Virginia nutrient-trading program of insufficiently punishing polluters and creating local pollution “hot spots,” including in the Shenandoah Valley.

According to the report, wastewater treatment plants in Front Royal and Strasburg released high levels of phosphorous into the Shenandoah River in 2016.

“Last year, a pollution credit swap allowed the Strasburg Sewage Treatment Plant in the Shenandoah Valley to release 2,942 pounds of phosphorous last year, more than three times its permitted limit, into the North Fork of the Shenandoah, which already has excessive levels of phosphorous and suffers from algal blooms,” the report reads.

Front Royal’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, the report states, released more than two times its limit of phosphorous in 2016.

But neither plant broke the law, because of a nutrient credit program that allows wastewater plants that release pollutants at levels higher than their limits to buy credits from other plants that run below their nutrient limits.

Tom Pelton, director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project and an author on the report, said that this program allows wastewater plants to trade with faraway plants, creating local areas with high levels of pollution.

“Because of the pollution trading that Virginia uses, several plants up and down the river are basically being allowed to dump two and three times more phosphorous than they would normally be permitted into the river,” Pelton said. “So they’re making the bad phosphorous problem in the river even worse.”

But Allan Brockenbrough, Virginia Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit manager for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said that the department designs individual plant permits so that there are not these pollution “hot spots.” According to Brockenbrough, the trading system only covers a general permit designed to limit pollution into the Chesapeake Bay.

“Any requirements necessary to protect that local water quality is included in an individual permit that does not allow for trading,” Brockenbrough said.

Strasburg and Front Royal both purchased nutrient credits through the trading program. But Brockenbrough said that the credits they purchased were upstream of the wastewater treatment facilities.

“There were adequate credits located from other dischargers located upstream of Strasburg, so that the net impact below Strasburg would be zero from that trade,” Brockenbrough said. “And the same holds true of Front Royal and other facilities.”

The report also states that wastewater treatment plants in Virginia have not modernized at the rate of plants in Maryland, which does not have a nutrient credit program. Pelton said that this is because of Virginia’s nutrient credit program.

“In a pollution trading system, you can simply choose to buy credits,” Pelton said. “And not buy equipment, but instead basically send a check to another plant–sometimes far away, and not upgrade the plant. So in some cases, it provides an excuse to delay or not to upgrade.”

Brockenbrough said that the trading program was designed so that wastewater plants did not modernize all at once. When the program was first implemented in 2005, he said, it was fairly cheap for plants to buy nutrient credits, which let a large number of smaller plants delay upgrading their facilities.

“This was back in 2005, roughly, the economy was booming, construction prices were going through the roof, commodity prices were skyrocketing, you had trouble finding enough qualified labor and engineering firms,” Brockenbrough said. “This allowed some of the bigger facilities to go first and to provide credits and give some of the smaller communities more time to meet their goals.”

Strasburg was one of those places that waited until recently to upgrade its wastewater treatment plant. Jay McKinley, the director of public works for Strasburg, said that the pollution credits played a role in deciding to upgrade the town’s plant with more modern equipment.

“The first year, [the credits] were like $2 a credit,” McKinley said. “Well, that wasn’t too bad. We may have spent 10 or 15 thousand dollars. But each year, they go up by a percentage.”

The price had gone to the point where Strasburg was paying between $80,000 and $100,000 per year in nutrient credits, McKinley said.

Since then, Strasburg has modernized its plant. McKinley and Brockenbrough both said that the town should be under its nutrient limits next year.

Front Royal, meanwhile, is slated to complete its modernized wastewater plant in March 2018.