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Tampa City Council approves summertime ban on fertilizer with nitrogen

TAMPA — Businesses predicted layoffs and lawsuits, but the City Council decided on Thursday that Tampa will have some of Florida's most restrictive rules on fertilizer.

Starting in 2012, the city will prohibit the sale of fertilizer containing nitrogen or phosphorus during the June 1 to Sept. 30 rainy season.

During those same months, homeowners will be banned from applying the chemicals to their lawns. Golf courses and vegetable gardens will be exempt.

Throughout the rest of the year, residents will have to use fertilizer that contains at least 50 percent slow-release nitrogen.

Environmentalists say the ban will keep fertilizer from being washed from yards into Tampa Bay and local waterways, where it can feed fish-killing algae bloom.

"Tourists don't want to come to a place where there are no fish," council member Mary Mulhern said. "People don't want to live in a place where the water is polluted."

But lawn care and fertilizer companies predicted the ban would cost jobs. Jim Battel, a regional director for Scotts Lawn Service, said he would have to lay off 20 percent of his employees.

"If the fertilizer sales ban goes into effect, myself and my team may lose our jobs," said Humiar Ahmad, who handles sales of Scotts Miracle-Gro to stores in Tampa.

But where others forecast doom, Mulhern saw an opportunity for fertilizer companies to develop new nitrogen-free products.

"We're not eliminating jobs," she said. "We're creating a new market."

Council members voted 6-to-1 for the ban, with Frank Reddick voting no. At his request, council members asked for an economic impact analysis of the ban within 90 days.

"This could affect a lot of businesses," Reddick said.

Council members also said they would review the ordinance within 90 days and make any changes necessary based on additional information they receive.

Until now, only Pinellas County and its cities had rules as far-reaching as Tampa's. Supporters of Tampa's ban included the Sierra Club, the Florida Consumer Action Network, Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, which is a partnership of Tampa and other bay area governments.

"You don't have to be a scientist to know that it rains in June, July, August and September," said Phil Compton of the Sierra Club, "and you don't have to be a scientist to know that what you put on your lawn when it rains like it did last night will wash off into the water."

Tampa officials spent less than a month debating the ordinance because of a law the Legislature passed this spring. That law gives the state the authority to regulate sales of fertilizer except in counties and cities that have passed their own laws by July 1.

Thus the alternative was to trust Tallahassee to safeguard Tampa waterways, council member Harry Cohen said.

"Given the state's recent record on protecting the environment, it makes me very uncomfortable to do that," he said.

But former state Sen. John Grant, who represents retailers and yard care companies, said the council has rushed the issue.

"I can tell you that litigation is certain," he said.

Supporters said the ban will ultimately be less expensive than removing nitrogen from local waterways, something that costs about $3,500 per pound.

Advocates estimate the ban will prevent eight tons of nitrogen from getting into Tampa's waterways even if only half the city obeys the law. That, they say, will save the city an estimated $56 million in removal costs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection monitor the amount of nitrogen and other nutrients that flow into Tampa Bay.

The city now meets those standards, but that is expected to get harder once development picks up again. In the worst case, the city could face federal fines for excessive discharges of nitrogen.

Pinellas County studies found that nitrogen is feeding a buildup of muck in northern Tampa Bay and that 79 percent of the nitrogen in Lake Tarpon comes from fertilizer.

But fertilizer manufacturers and lawn care companies maintain that the Pinellas and Tampa bans are unscientific. They note that researchers at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences concluded that the Pinellas study did not determine whether the fertilizer polluting Lake Tarpon had been applied properly.

Educating residents on how to use fertilizer to create a healthy lawn could do more to curtail storm water runoff than banning the products, the industry contends.

"A well-maintained lawn holds nutrients in it," said Christine Miller, a Tampa-based national training manager for Scotts. "A nasty, dirty, weed-infested lawn promotes runoff."

Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.

Tampa City Council approves summertime ban on fertilizer with nitrogen 06/23/11 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2011 9:01pm]
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