A little-noticed federally-backed program is chipping away at the foundation of the Clean Water Act, one of the nation's core environmental laws, allowing major polluters to evade responsibility for contaminating rivers, streams and other waterways, an environmental group said in a report released Thursday.
So called “water quality trading” programs have quietly spread into more than 20 states, the report said, with a goal of establishing a water pollution credit trading market — essentially a cap-and-trade system, like those controversially proposed for climate change, but covering the dumping of pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus into America's waterways.
Those nutrients are behind algae blooms that suck oxygen out of water supplies, killing fish and other wildlife and sometimes making people sick. The EPA calls nutrient pollution “one of America's most widespread, costly and challenging environmental problems” and warns that the hazards are likely to grow worse as the climate warms.
Programs to trade credits for nutrient pollution are still relatively small scale, but have gained the backing of the Environmental Protection Agency and the United States Department of Agriculture. They are based on the idea that a free market can help identify the cheapest ways to cut pollution in a watershed.