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Wis. lawmaker offers pollution-reduction option

  • Associated Press
  • January 26, 2014 - 5:45 PM

GREEN BAY, Wis. — State Sen. Rob Cowles has introduced a bill designed to encourage industrial polluters to fund efforts to reduce farm pollution.

The measure would allow wastewater-treatment plants and other producers of phosphorus to delay their own reduction efforts if they helped pay for efforts to cut farm runoff, Press-Gazette Media reported (http://gbpg.net/1e0MoOh ).

Cowles, R-Allouez, said he's concerned about oxygen-deficient areas in the waters of Green Bay and elsewhere. He said the so-called dead zones point to a need to rein in phosphorus runoff from the largest contributors — agriculture and urban storm water.

"Green Bay's dead zone is similar to sections of Lake Erie and the Gulf of Mexico, where there's so little oxygen that fish and aquatic organisms struggle to survive," he said.

Industrial polluters are already cutting down on the amount of phosphorus they discharge into state waterways. Tougher government standards call for more cuts, but Cowles says those reductions will be expensive and only marginally helpful.

For example, to comply with the government regulations, NEW Water, the brand of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, would have to spend more than $200 million to install filtration technology at its wastewater-treatment plants in De Pere and Green Bay.

But NEW Water contributes just 2 percent of all the phosphorus that ends up in Green Bay, executive director Tom Sigmund said. Running and maintaining the filtration system will cost another $2 million per year, he said.

"That is not cost-effective, and it's not a good deal for our rate-payers," he said.

Under Cowles' bill, NEW Water could instead pay $50 for every pound of phosphorus it discharges above allowable levels, which would come to about $450,000 a year.

That would mean a 4- or 5-cent rate hike for customers, but it would delay NEW Water's compliance requirement until cheaper filtration technology can be developed, he said.

The $450,000 would be spent on programs to help farmers cut down on the amount of phosphorus runoff that ends up in waterways.

If Cowles' bill passes in Wisconsin, it would still require approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

NEW Water is already working on pilot programs that involve studying ways to reduce farm runoff. Those programs will likely continue regardless of how Cowles' measure fares, but the sewerage district would consider switching to his program if it becomes available, Sigmund said.

© 2014 Star Tribune