TAMPA — Rejecting the recommendation of its own staff, the Environmental Protection Commission board voted Thursday not to ban the summertime use of fertilizer in Hillsborough County.
The nitrogen level in Tampa Bay already is above capacity, EPC officials said. Prohibiting the sale and use of nitrogen-based fertilizers during the rainy season could reduce the amount of nitrogen that ends up in the bay each year by 30 tons.
Instead, the board, made up of county commissioners, opted to spend money and efforts to educate the public on the harm that excess nitrogen causes in local waterways.
"Nothing means more to me than to make sure that we have long-term protection and protection with common sense … that will take us into the next generation," said Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who proposed moving forward without the restrictions.
The motion, which does ban fertilizer use within 10 feet of surface water, passed in a 5-2 vote. Commissioners Rose Ferlita and Kevin Beckner voted against it. The proposed ban, supported by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, would have been in effect from June 1 to Sept. 30 beginning next year.
Currently, the county follows state rules. Further limiting the amount of nitrogen runoff would help prevent future government sanctions, said Tom Ash, general manager of environmental restoration for the EPC. It also could allow more businesses that contribute to nitrogen levels to obtain operating permits.
"The bottom line is, by not taking any type of action, or at least the appropriate action to remove nitrogen from our bay, we are stunting job growth and we are stunting industry growth here in our community?" Beckner asked.
Yes, Ash replied.
But how much of the problem is due to lawn fertilizer?
In all, about 1,450 tons of nitrogen go into Hillsborough Bay (which connects to Tampa Bay) during an average year, according to the EPC. The annual amount added to Tampa Bay as a result of residential fertilizer use in unincorporated Hillsborough: 182 tons. Ban supporters say it would reduce nitrogen levels by 4 percent, while opponents put it at 1 percent.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the numbers aren't enough for stringent regulations. He stressed the importance of people knowing how to properly use fertilizer, but also suggested that picking up animal waste and grass clippings could help.
For years, environmental protection groups have fought for the prohibition. They say heavy rains mixed with the fertilizer causes harm to marine wildlife.
Similar ordinances have passed in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg. Phil Compton of the Sierra Club is concerned that having different rules for counties that share the same bay will confuse the average person.
"The net effect is pollution is going to continue unabated into Tampa Bay," he said after the meeting. "Business growth will therefore be stifled."
Kevin Smetana can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2439.