Over the past year, as Pinellas and Hillsborough county officials pondered whether banning the use of lawn fertilizer during summer would cut pollution in Tampa Bay, they slowed decisions on the advice of scientists from the University of Florida.
Those experts urged them to reject the summertime ban sought by environmental groups, putting the scientists on the same side as the turfgrass industry.
"I want to make clear we're on no side except the side of science," Terrill Nell, UF's director of horticulture science, told Hillsborough officials at a January hearing.
But the scientists failed to mention a key fact: The turf industry has paid at least $505,000 for research projects by UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Science since 2006, according to a St. Petersburg Times review of university documents.
One IFAS researcher who has testified against the summer fertilizer ban, George Hochmuth, has received $178,000 in research grants from the industry. Ten others have received money from companies such as fertilizer manufacturer Archer Daniels Midland. Hochmuth denied any relationship between the money and IFAS's findings.
"If you're insinuating I do biased research because of the funding source, those are fighting words," Hochmuth said.
Seven months ago, Hochmuth, Nell and six other IFAS experts produced a report called "Unintended Consequences Associated with Certain Urban Fertilizer Ordinances."
The report, provided to counties and cities around the state, warns that banning fertilizer in the summer could result in "an inadvertent increase" in pollution in the months before and after the summer blackout.
The reason: Homeowners might overfertilize before and after the blackout, allowing more pollution.
Industry officials requested IFAS write that report, said Erica Santella of TruGreen in Orlando. The turf industry provided half the funding for research that went into the report, Hochmuth said.
"We asked UF to write something that presents the facts as they see them, so that people could make these decisions based on science, not on an emotional basis," Santella said.
However, because the report cites no scientific research about pollution, biologist Holly Greening of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program calls it "conjecture."
IFAS scientists' have a different focus than the people concerned about algae blooms and fish kills, Greening explained: "They're talking about turfgrass health, and we're talking about water quality."
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Lush green lawns and golf courses are a staple of the Florida landscape. But creating those landscapes takes fertilizer.
With heavy rain, fertilizer washes downstream into the state's waterways, causing nitrogen and phosphorus pollution that spurs algae blooms like the one this summer that stretched 14 miles across Tampa Bay. Such blooms frequently lead to fish kills and dead zones. The blooms also can produce toxins that cause infections and respiratory problems in humans.
Greening says residential runoff accounts for 20 percent of the nitrogen in the bay.
Local governments eyeing fertilizer restrictions also tout the saving to taxpayers by stopping pollution before it becomes a problem.
Pinellas plans to spend $29.5 million over the next six years to improve water quality in places like Lake Tarpon and Lake Seminole, where runoff is a major cause of pollution.
Sarasota County passed its ordinance in 2007. It included a summertime ban on sales and use of fertilizer, because summer is the season that tends to dump the most rain on the state, said Jack Merriam, the county's senior environmental manager.
So far, he said, Sarasota County has seen no sign of IFAS's unintended consequences. "There have been no massive algae blooms, and no spikes of nitrogen before or after the restricted season," he said.
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This year the Legislature passed a bill that required the state Department of Environmental Protection to write a model fertilizer ordinance for counties and cities to copy.
The turfgrass industry regarded this as a victory because the model contained no summer fertilizer ban. The bill also required that any county or city that wanted to pass a tougher ordinance to consult with IFAS on its science.
IFAS has always had a close relationship with the turf industry. An IFAS expert founded the Florida Turfgrass Association in 1952. In addition to financing IFAS research on turfgrass, industry groups lobby the Legislature for more funding.
One sign of IFAS's close ties to the industry came last year when Charlotte County was considering a fertilizer ordinance. Santella showed up to testify for the industry and told the commission she was coordinating her appearances with an IFAS expert.
"When this meeting came up we kind of flipped a coin. I won't say who won. But I'm here today," she said.
Cris Costello of the Sierra Club heard that. "I was appalled."
The Sierra Club has become so incensed by IFAS's actions against the summertime ban that this week it complained to UF president Bernie Machen that IFAS "has become a lobbying effort."
Machen's staff is pondering its response, but "the president feels it's a very important question. He takes all of these inquires seriously," said Hochmuth.
Hochmuth said his research has sometimes broken with the industry, such as the effects of fertilizer on crops.
He also noted that the turfgrass funding is a fraction of IFAS researching funding. In 2008, IFAS received $147.9 million, but about $9.7 million came from companies, foundations and other organizations.
Other IFAS scientists are researching effects on water quality that will be added to the "Unintended Consequences" report, though Hochmuth declined to elaborate how the report would change.
IFAS also has led a variety of groups to study how to improve water quality and define what causes pollution from runoff — an effort the Sierra Club bailed on because it saw the effort tilted toward the industry.
In the meantime, Costello fears the damage has already been done.
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At least 16 cities and counties have passed ordinances that are stricter than the state's model, including St. Petersburg, which will begin its summer fertilizer ban in 2011.
Last year the Tampa Bay Estuary Program staff spent months working with IFAS and other parties to craft a tough model ordinance that governments around the bay could adopt.
IFAS and the industry opposed a summer ban, which Santella calls "flat-earth science." But the estuary program's policy board — made up of city and county officials — put it in anyway.
Pinellas county staffers then came up with a draft ordinance in August that would mimic the estuary's model and include a summer ban.
Then IFAS's criticism arrived in letters this month, and county officials decided not to give the proposal to the commission — or make any recommendations. Sierra Club officials worry the measure is being watered down.
Pinellas environmental manager Will Davis said IFAS has "an excellent reputation for research." He had no idea about its industry funding. County officials still will discuss a summertime ban even without seeing an ordinance, he said.
Hillsborough County's Environmental Protection Commission staff was working on its own ordinance, but after three workshops have proposed nothing.
Instead, after hearing from IFAS, the commission wanted another workshop in December.
"It's a debate between the Ph.D's," explained Bob Stetler of the EPC staff. "They're hearing the various levels of science."
David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.