Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Connecticut Gets EPA Award for Innovative Program While the State Dithers on Funding for the Sound Cleanup. (Why Doesn't NY Have a Trading Program?)

The U.S. EPA gave an award to Connecticut yesterday for its program of allowing sewage treatment plant operators from around the state to buy and sell credits for reducing the amount of nitrogen they dump into Long Island Sound.

The award is a great example of rewarding the good (the trading program) and ignoring the bad (Connecticut’s complete irresponsibility in refusing the put money into its Clean Water Fund) that might work with a naughty 6-year-old but probably will prompt legislators and Governor Rell to pat themselves on the back and continue to ignore the funding issue.

On the other hand, by singling out Connecticut’s nitrogen trading for praise, EPA implicitly asks why New York doesn’t have a similar program. This news story asks the question explicitly and reports that New York State’s answer is, apparently, “We don’t allow a nitrogen trading program because we don’t allow a nitrogen trading program.”

The New York state Department of Environmental Conservation responded to questions about the issue with an e-mailed statement that the state had chosen to require each plant to meet a specific limit. The e-mail, from agency spokeswoman Lori O'Connell, gave no reason for not using the trading program, except to say that "the loading limits established for (each treatment plant) will result in lower levels of nitrogen reaching the Sound."

The same story makes the excellent point, from Westchester County’s view, that a trading program might be cheaper and more efficient than the one-size-fits-all approach:

With New York state's sewage plants on the Sound facing the same requirements, Westchester officials have asked Albany in the past to allow a similar credit-trading program. Such an initiative might help the county avoid costly work that would otherwise be needed mostly at the county's sewage treatment plants in New Rochelle and Mamaroneck, said Deputy County Executive Larry Schwartz.

The state has rejected the idea.

"The state of New York is being shortsighted in trying to force counties like Westchester to take the most expensive and onerous route toward taxpayers in helping reduce nitrogen loading in Long Island Sound," Schwartz said yesterday. "They have refused and neglected to pursue and implement less costly options, including creating a New York state nitrogen-trading program."

Here’s EPA’s press release (see if you can find the one big error in it).

EPA’s announcement, by the way, received zero coverage, from what I can tell, in Connecticut newspapers, which presumably saw it as pure PR and therefore not newsworthy. Obviously a bit of awareness and imagination could have turned it into a good story – “Connecticut receives EPA award for an innovative program while the state’s elected officials continue to dither on the funding for the Sound cleanup.”

(Two papers, however, rewrote an EPA press release also issued yesterday that announced a bunch of grants for governments and non-profits working on the Sound, here and here.)

The good news though is that, coincidentally, Leah Schmalz of Save the Sound/CFE had an op-ed piece ready to go in the Hartford Courant. It implicitly highlights the irony of giving Connecticut an award while its elected officials ignore the Sound’s funding needs:

When the federal government and the state of Connecticut promised the state's citizens clean and healthy water 30 years ago, the goal was to stop the two billion gallons of raw sewage that enters our waterways each year by separating combined sewer overflows and to restore the "dead zone" in Long Island Sound by removing approximately 60 percent of the nitrogen discharges from the sewage treatment plants in the state.

Despite years of great progress, the Clean Water Fund - the primary mechanism for funding those wastewater treatment and sewer projects in Connecticut - began to fall apart when the legislature decided to shift that money to other non-water-related purposes in 2002.

The effect of this failure to adequately invest in the Clean Water Fund began to accelerate.

The value of a well-financed Clean Water Fund to protect the public's health became painfully clear in 2005. That year Hartford's city sewer flooded the basements of local residents with raw sewage and the number of beach closings increased to 200 - a nearly 10 percent increase from the previous year.

The value of a well-financed Clean Water Fund was reinforced in 2006 when inadequate funding for nitrogen reduction forced the state Department of Environmental Protection to approve the discharge of more than 1.5 million more pounds of oxygen-depleting nitrogen into Long Island Sound than was allowed under existing permits.

Last year, it became obvious that if we did not fix this problem, Connecticut's effort to meet its obligations to its citizens and the environment would be set back by decades.

During the last legislative session, Gov. Rell and the legislature were called on to put the Clean Water Fund back on the short list of top priorities.

Although $110 million in general obligation bonds in each of the next two years is not enough to complete all of the state's clean water projects, it would be a significant influx that could help keep raw sewage from entering our waterways, create high-quality jobs and restore Long Island Sound.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

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2:03 PM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

I presume that those Westchester officials who are upset with NYSDEC over the lack of a nitrogen credit exchange know exactly where they are going to get their credits. If so, perhaps they could let the public know. They certainly aren't going to come from CT because CT hasn't generated any credits recently because of the funding SNAFU. Is Westchester expecting NYC to generate credits? My guess (and it's only a guess) would be that NYC would be more likely be looking for credits, rather than generating them.

Anyway, the credit program, while helpful, doesn't work without the funding for projects that will generate the reductions necessary for the credits.

Finally, with CT determining the value of a credit based on a formula instead of (I can't believe I'm writing this) the "market", then there is a disconnect that makes it unworkable. After all, there were insufficient credits generated last year, yet all the STPs that were over their limits per the general permit had to do was pay some money. What did they pay for? Was it just a penalty? Apparently, the credits were and are priced too low.

I can't wait to see how the carbon trading program works for power plants in the RGGI area. Trading nitrogen credits among 79 STPs in a well-defined geographic area within a single state would seem to be a piece of cake compared to CO2.

7:06 PM  
Blogger Tom Andersen said...

Interesting questions, Bryan. I haven't heard officially from anyone involved in Westchester government, although I know they're not happy that the state won't put together a trading program.

By the way, here's the error in the EPA press release:

"Through the Nitrogen Credit Exchange, established in 2002, the Conn. program has reduced nitrogen discharges, meeting or exceeding the reduction goal of 58.5 percent by 2014."

If they had met or exceeded the nitrogen reduction goal, they wouldn't need all this Clean Water Fund money to do nitrogen reduction.

Someone who works for the Connecticut DEP noticed it too but EPA never did. The Long Island Sound office sent the press release out as is the day after EPA's press office did so, and hours after I noted that there was an error. It remains uncorrected.

7:26 AM  

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