CORVALLIS - Oregon may soon begin one of the nation's first experiments with "pollution credit trading," an innovative approach to cleaning up streams that might save money, reduce the level of pollutants and create a new atmosphere of cooperation, rather than confrontation, in pollution control.
According to Oregon State University engineers who have studied the concept and who may help set up a pilot project in eastern Oregon, pollution credit trading can help create a "win-win" approach, address the intractable issue of "non-point-source" pollutants and provide cleaner water at minimal cost.
"We don't want to sell this as the simple solution to all of our water pollution problems," said Marshall English, an OSU professor of bioresource engineering. "But I don't think there's any doubt it could be beneficial in certain situations, and the EPA is very positive about getting some projects going."
According to English, pollution credit trading is meant to supplement, not replace, existing regulatory approaches. And it's not intended to circumvent restrictions on some of the most toxic compounds, such as dioxins, PCBs or other serious toxins.
But with other pollution concerns such as unwanted nutrients or sediments, there are a variety of ways it can be implemented and the range of participants - industries, cities, sewage treatment plants, even individual farms and ranches - can be broad.
In the simplest sense it allows one entity, like a sewage treatment plant, to increase the amount of pollutants it may inject into a stream if it arranges and pays for another entity - perhaps a group of agricultural operations - to reduce their polluting activities by an even larger amount.
"That's one of the keys," English said. "This is not viewed as a one-to-one tradeoff of pollutants. The overall goal is to significantly reduce the total level of pollution. But if it's done right, you can accomplish that and still save large amounts of money."
The savings, he said, may come in the form of less treatment technology required by a city or business to reach certain levels of pollution control, or perhaps new and profitable industrial ventures that might otherwise have to be curtailed because they created some new pollution concern.
And the opportunity, he said, is to reduce pollutants from the area now considered most difficult to affect - "non-point-sources," such as farms, ranches, homes, ordinary urban or residential activities - which, in any one case, don't seem like a big deal. But their cumulative impact can be huge.
A case similar to that may be the first major experiment in Oregon, and among the first in the nation, to use the new concept.
The Umatilla River basin is facing concerns about unhealthy levels of phosphorus being released into the river from a variety of sources, which can cause problems for fisheries and other aquatic life. One potential impact is that the city of Pendleton may need to make costly improvements to its sewage treatment facility to lower its output of phosphorus.
"If we are able to successfully develop this as an EPA-endorsed pilot project, the idea would be for Pendleton to create financial incentives and provide monitoring programs that could reduce phosphorus loading from farms, ranches, mines or other entities in the basin," English said. "We may be able to substantially reduce the amount of phosphorus now going into the Umatilla River and still save a lot of money that Pendleton will otherwise have to spend on sewage treatment."
Right now, English said, the only approach in Oregon to help control agricultural-related pollution is the use of "best management practices," which are good so far as they go. But that doesn't mean there is no more that could be done, he said.
"The key here is you have to consider the political and economic realities of more and more stringent governmental regulations," English said. "By trading pollution credits and creating financial incentives, we can avoid treating people as enemies or lawbreakers. Instead we make them into voluntary partners, working towards a common goal, and using very progressive farming, ranching or industrial practices. That's critically important."
This concept has already been used successfully to address acid rain concerns in the eastern U.S., English said. And in a pilot project under way in Minnesota, which bears similarity to the eastern Oregon situation, a private industry is being allowed to expand its activities - and associated pollutant loading - while it helps pay for erosion control, improved livestock management, wetland enhancement and other activities that more than offset any added pollutants it creates.
To facilitate this process, environmental planners eventually envision the creation of pollution "credits" that can be bartered and sold. A credit might be defined as a certain amount of sediment, chemical or some other pollutant.
Systems to implement this concept are still evolving, English said, and by design are meant to be flexible to help deal with the wide range of pollutants that may affect lakes, streams, or groundwater.