Lawmakers vote to restrict phosphorus in fertilizers

OLYMPIA - Gardeners and lawn owners may soon find the process of buying fertilizer in Washington state slightly more complicated.

Democrats in the state House of Representatives voted to severely restrict the use of phosphorus in fertilizers on Feb. 28.

Under HB 1489, which now passes to the Senate for consideration, fertilizer containing phosphorus may not be applied to turf except for uses deemed "necessary," including the purposes of agriculture, gardening, lawn sowing and lawn repair. Retail stores may not display fertilizers containing phosphorus; purchasers would need to ask for them.

The bill does not address the determination and enforcement of "necessary use" of phosphorus.

The bill passed the House 58 to 39, mostly along party lines. A smattering of Republicans, however, joined the Democrats: Glenn Anderson (R-Fall City), Larry Crouse (R-Spokane Valley) and Mike Hope (R-Lake Stevens). Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, opposed the bill on final passage.

The bill is intended to lower phosphorus levels in lakes, rivers and other bodies of water in the state. Proponents of the bill say that high phosphorus levels in water contribute to toxic algae blooms, which can be harmful to plant life, animals and humans.

Rep. Andy Billig (D-Spokane), the bill's lead sponsor, said that the primary source of phosphorus pollution is turf fertilizer that washes into groundwater and eventually into lakes and rivers.

"As a state we have a commitment to clean water," Billig said in a public hearing Feb. 4. "This bill creates a cost-effective way to make our water safer and healthier."

Local jurisdictions would be allowed to enforce stricter restrictions than the ones adopted by the state, such as Whatcom County, which has already banned the use of phosphorus in fertilizers.

Democrats shot down 10 Republican amendments to add more specific exemptions to the ban, including airstrips, playgrounds, dog parks, golf courses, athletic fields and nursing homes. Billig claimed that these uses were already covered in the bill language.

The phosphorus restriction is based on legislation passed in 1993 to prohibit the sale of phosphorus-containing laundry detergent. A law restricting the amount of phosphorus in dishwashing soap took effect this past July.

Democrats voted down another amendment by Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, that would have required the state to evaluate whether the dishwashing detergent ban was effective in lowering phosphorus levels in bodies of water.

"We are mandating that we not use a product without knowing whether or not the other mandates have actually had an effect," Short said, expressing skepticism that phosphorus was the main cause of toxic algae blooms. "It's not just phosphorus - it's pet waste, human waste, all kinds of things."

Lake Spokane, in Short's district, has experienced several toxic algae blooms in recent years. In a 2009 study, the state Department of Ecology found that it had the highest freshwater concentration of microcystin (an algal toxin that targets the liver) in the state. Short argued that treated wastewater is the main source of phosphorus pollution.

She noted that Spokane County is investing tens of millions of dollars into upgrading the wastewater treatment system, including a $167 million sewage treatment plant being constructed in downtown Spokane. Short said, "I think you're going to see a marked improvement in that."

Other Republicans - particularly those whose districts lie along state borders - were jittery about possibly losing business to neighboring states that would carry phosphorus-laden fertilizer. Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax, argued that the bill ought to be retitled the "Idaho Commerce Act," whereas Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, proposed renaming the bill the "Oregon Retailers Act."

Orcutt, whose district shares a border with Oregon, said that if people decided to buy their fertilizer elsewhere, "not only are we losing business from our retailers, not only are they going to have to lay people off ... Now we're going to send jobs across the river. We're going to lose the sales tax, we're going to lose the jobs, we're going to lose all kinds of economic benefit out there for something that's not even proven."

Orcutt also argued that the bill would ultimately fail to reduce the amount of phosphorus washing into state waterways, saying that lack of phosphorus would cause grass to die and that people would naturally assume it was due to a lack of water.

"That's where you get the problem with phosphorus ... when you have an unhealthy lawn and you get a lot of rainfall. There is nothing to actually hold those soil particles in place because the lawn is no longer healthy enough to hold it," Orcutt said. "So now you get erosion, and with phosphorus attached to the soil particles, that's where you get the problem. It looks to me that we could actually be creating a problem rather than resolving a problem with this bill."

Rep. Charles Ross, R-Naches, said that a study by Eric J. Miltner, professor of turfgrass sciences at Washington State University, had proven that there was no correlation between phosphorus in turf fertilizer and water quality, making the bill a waste of time.

"The citizens of this state are not idiots," Ross said. "What they want is a Legislature that comes over here and solves the problems they can't. My neighbor can figure out how to adequately fertilize his 50 by 100 square postage stamp of grass, I can tell you. This bill is an overreach of governmental authority."

Billig, however, claimed that studies at the University of Michigan and University of Wisconsin, in addition to another study at Washington State University, had indeed proven a connection between phosphorus levels and toxic algae blooms.

In 2010 the state Senate passed a similar bill, SB 6289, which then died in committee in the House. The present bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Environment, Water and Energy committee this coming Wednesday, March 9.

Text and analysis of HB 1489 may be read at:\

- Tiffany Vu is a reporter for the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.


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