Cleaning Up Chesapeake Bay: One Company Steps Up

Monday, April 18, 2011

Leading lawn care products maker Scotts Miracle-Gro brought smiles to the faces of many Chesapeake Bay advocates last month with its announcement that it will eliminate phosphorus from its fertilizers. By 2012, all Scotts lawn maintenance fertilizers sold in the United States will be free of phosphorus, a nutrient turned persistent pollutant that is crippling the bay’s ecosystem. Scott said its phosphorus-free lawn food will yield the same green lawns at the same cost as current products.

Excess phosphorus on golf courses, parks, home lawns and other grassy plots are a critical part of Chesapeake Bay’s pollution problem. A new report by Environment Maryland estimates that turf grass covers 1.3 million acres in just that one small state, and state records show that in 2008 alone, 310 million pounds of fertilizer were purchased for non-farm uses such as public and private lawns. Both consumers and lawn care professionals often apply fertilizer even when soils have no need for more phosphorus or other nutrients.

Thirty-one percent of the bay’s phosphorus pollution comes from urban and suburban runoff. Research in the bay watershed and elsewhere demonstrates just how easily excess phosphorus can contaminate streams and rivers that lead to the Chesapeake. One study of two neighboring Minnesota suburbs found that the community supporting phosphorus-free fertilizers had up to 15 percent cleaner water – at no added cost to residents.

New York was the first state in the Chesapeake watershed to ban phosphorus in lawn fertilizer, and Virginia is poised to pass similar legislation.

Lawn-loving suburbanites aren’t the biggest problem, however. Agriculture is responsible for 45 percent of the bay’s phosphorus pollution. Last year, EWG’s Bay out of Balance report found that farmers frequently spread far too much phosphorus-rich manure and fertilizers on their fields, both to feed their crops and as a way to conveniently dispose of manure. In many cases, they’re adding phosphorus to soil that already holds more than enough of the nutrient to satisfy plants’ needs. In some counties, up to 80 percent of soils tested have excessive amounts of phosphorus, and this excess constantly washes off into local waterways and the bay. Although state agricultural agencies are supposed to monitor and control the problem, major weaknesses and inconsistencies in their methods mean that phosphorus contamination of the bay continues unabated.

For the sake of the bay, agriculture needs to step up and take on its fair share of the job of preventing this pollution, but agribusiness and its patrons in Congress are doing everything they can to evade this responsibility.


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