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Thursday, April 1, 2010 06:21 pm

Phosphorus is not for us

Lawn care companies may be required to go phosphorous-free this summer

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Lawn care companies could be prohibited from using phosphorus in fertilizer as early as July 1, according to a bill that’s already passed the Illinois House.

Phosphorus, a growth-stimulating nutrient often contained in fertilizer, is said to cause environmental damage by increasing aquatic plant and algae growth in bodies of water. The measure seeks to ban lawn care companies from using phosphorus-containing fertilizers unless a soil test proves a phosphorus deficiency. Organic fertilizer in which phosphorus naturally occurs would also be exempt.

Nutrient pollution is the most widespread water quality problem in Illinois, says Jack Darin, director of the Illinois Sierra Club. Phosphorus runoff from an over-application of fertilizer can cause pea green algae to grow in water. The thick mats of algae suck oxygen out of the water, killing fish, making it difficult for boats to get through and impeding recreational activities.

“Too much of a good thing is a real problem in our waterways,” Darin says. “The fact of the matter is, we have fantastic soil … and the phosphorous in many fertilizers is not needed in Illinois to produce a beautiful green lawn.”

According to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, lawns in Midwestern states like Illinois rarely need additional phosphorus. The nutrient is already present in the soil.

Currently, lawn care professionals face inconsistent local rules about where and when they can apply fertilizer. According to Jean Payne, president of the Illinois Fertilizer and Chemical Association, many municipalities have attempted to solve their water quality problems by banning commercial fertilizers altogether.

Payne says her organization sees the bill as a way to create uniform rules about fertilizer and pesticide application.

“We are seeing more and more municipalities, mostly in the suburbs, making probably less than educated decisions about local bans on lawn care fertilizers,” she says. “Either restricting the sale, restricting the use or restricting the application at the local level. Everybody does it a little bit differently. It causes a lot of confusion for companies to know where they sell things and where they can’t.”

The ban applies only to lawn care, but production agriculture could become a target in the future, says Warren Goetsch, bureau chief of environmental programs at the Department of Agriculture.

“There continues to be more and more concern about runoff and nutrient values, and I believe that certainly there’s going to be more and more pressure to look at production agriculture in the future,” he says.

One of the causes of concern is a condition called “Gulf Hypoxia,” which involves low oxygen levels caused by algae growth in waters along the Mississippi River Basin, along the Gulf of Mexico. Phosphorus and other fertilizer ingredients like nitrogen contribute to this condition, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Association.

Some representatives expressed concern about the targeting of phosphorus based on national and not local evidence. Rep. Richard Myers, R-Macomb, told the Agriculture and Conservation Committee on March 9 that he would like to see state-specific data.

Rep. Shane Cultra, R-Onarga, agreed, adding that if the state bans phosphorus from residential lawns, it should ban it from the agriculture arena as well.

“We’re doing it on the hypothesis that it’s causing problems in the Gulf of Mexico,” Cultra said. “In my area, you’ve got thousand and thousands of acres of phosphorous applied on farm ground and that we’re going to worry about what little bit’s put on the lawn seems pretty disingenuous to me.”

Rep. Brandon Phelps, D-Harrisburg, the bill’s sponsor, says he will continue working to strike a compromise between the environmental and agricultural communities.

Contact Diane Ivey at divey@illinoistimes.com.

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