A Cleaner Sound
Much progress toward a cleaner environment has been made through the market-based magic of pollution credits. The government sets a goal for reducing the levels of a given contaminant — sulfur dioxide, say — and allows polluters to reach it by negotiating among themselves. Efficient high achievers who surpass given cleanup targets earn credits that they can sell to those who do not. Laggards can buy time, but they cannot necessarily wriggle out of the obligation to come clean, or at least cleaner. That is because the tolerable level of a pollutant is gradually lowered, and lowered again, until the air — or water, or whatever it is — is clear.
The scheme has worked wonders to reduce some forms of air pollution, and a similar plan to reduce the discharge of nitrogen into Long Island Sound has had striking results in Connecticut. Sewage treatment plants there have been among the many contributors to the Sound’s starkly declining water quality, with nitrogen in their wastewater causing bacteria and algae to flourish and starving the water of oxygen.
But thanks to a credit system, the state has aggressively reduced the amount of nitrogen flowing into the Sound. In five years of trading, discharges of nitrogen have been brought down to 34,000 pounds a day, from 50,000, with the goal being 18,500 by 2014.
Officials in Westchester say they want to try the Connecticut approach, but the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will not let them. It says the county’s four sewage plants are too far behind the curve and there are too few players to make the trading game work. “’There is not a supplier of nitrogen credits in this basin that could satisfy the requirements that Westchester has to satisfy,” James DeZolt, assistant director in the State Division of Water, said in last Sunday’s Times.
The pressure is real. Under a comprehensive cleanup agreement with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, New York and Connecticut have until 2014 to reduce, by 58.5 percent, the nitrogen reaching the Sound from sewage plants in about 80 communities.
One of the worst nitrogen dumpers, New York City, is moving forward with a $700 million effort to upgrade four plants. It is expensive but critical — those plants produce about half the nitrogen that periodically turns much of the western Sound into a summertime dead zone, where nothing that breathes can live.
As for Westchester, the county is complaining that its four plants would need to spend $355 million to $573 million on improvements to meet the discharge targets, and that the price is too steep for taxpayers in the affected sewer districts.
“We are all for protecting Long Island Sound,” the deputy county executive, Larry Schwartz, told The Times, “but you’ve got to balance that over what people can afford to pay.”
We are agnostic about what places do to get their nitrogen levels down, but not about whether they should. Westchester may flinch at the threat of localized taxpayer pain, but it should not use that to shrink from addressing an urgent regional problem. The money and means for upgrades must be found, whether indirectly through nitrogen trading or straight from taxpayers’ wallets.
The price will be high but not necessarily ruinous — the early cost estimates for New York City’s sewage-plant upgrades ran to more than $1 billion, until an aggressive search for economizing and efficiency brought the number sharply down. And there should be federal money available for protecting the Sound.
The future of Long Island Sound is no budget annoyance to be haggled down or bargained to death. It took considerable pressure from the federal government to get New York City on the right path, and backsliding is a continual peril. The Sound is as threatened as it is precious — the water is warming and lobsters and salt marshes have been dying, for reasons no one has precisely figured out.
But one of the bad things we do know about is nitrogen runoff. And it is in our power to fix.
Westchester NY Times