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Hillsborough commissioner seeks fertilizer ban

The county declined a summertime prohibition of fertilizer use 11 years ago.
Dead fish are pictured in a clean-up bucket along Bayshore Drive NE as hundreds of people marched Saturday in St. Petersburg asking for a Red Tide clean up. Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith is proposing Hillsborough follow the lead of Pinellas County and ban the summertime use of fertilizers to reduce nitrogen levels in area waterways.
Dead fish are pictured in a clean-up bucket along Bayshore Drive NE as hundreds of people marched Saturday in St. Petersburg asking for a Red Tide clean up. Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith is proposing Hillsborough follow the lead of Pinellas County and ban the summertime use of fertilizers to reduce nitrogen levels in area waterways. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jul. 20

In the wake of Red Tide-triggered fish kills in Apollo Beach, Ruskin and other Hillsborough County locations, Commissioner Mariella Smith wants to revisit a proposed fertilizer ban that didn’t pass muster more than a decade ago.

Smith said she will ask the rest of the commission for an ordinance to prohibit application of nitrogen fertilizers across Hillsborough County during Florida’s rainy season. It would be similar to rules already in place in Pinellas County and the city of Tampa.

“This is a way we can join our neighbors around Tampa Bay to work together to reduce polluting fertilizer that is rinsing into the bay with every summer rain,” she said.

However, Smith said she would not seek a summertime ban on fertilizer sales that is included in other local ordinances. Under state law, agricultural land would be exempt.

Smith isn’t the only one seeking stronger rules.

Last week, the St. Petersburg City Council urged the Pinellas County Commission to extend its annual fertilizer ban beyond the traditional June 1 to Sept. 30 window.

“My opinion is that we’re in for a summer of slime. We are needing to dedicate as much as we can to minimize the impacts of our human role in the Red Tide event, and that means reducing sources of nitrogen and other inputs such as phosphorous into our waterways,” said J.P. Brooker, director of Florida conservation for Ocean Conservancy, a national nonprofit environmental group.

“So, what would that mean for a body like this? At the municipal level, strengthening fertilizer ordinances would be a great place to start,” Brooker told the St. Petersburg council.

Smith joined the chorus of voices from environmental organizations that blame the Red Tide bloom on Piney Point. In April the state allowed 215 million gallons of polluted water from an old Manatee County fertilizer plant to be released into Tampa Bay so that it wouldn’t spill into neighborhoods.

Through Monday, Pinellas County had removed 1,277 tons of dead marine life and debris from its coast. The numbers from the Hillsborough side of the bay are not as dramatic. The county said Monday it had removed 4,200 pounds of dead fish from shorelines and residential canals, primarily in Apollo Beach and Ruskin.

Eleven years ago, the Hillsborough commission, sitting as the Environmental Protection Commission, overruled its own staff and decided not to ban summertime use of landscape fertilizers. The rules had been proposed by the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

Instead, the board put a focus on education, but did prohibit fertilizer use within 10 feet of surface water. Smith, a Ruskin resident who addressed the commission at the time supporting the ban, called the end product “much weaker than what any of our neighbors are doing.”

In Hillsborough, the Environmental Protection Commission prohibits application of fertilizers to turf or landscaping when it is raining, or the county is under a flood or hurricane watch or warning or “within 36 hours prior to a rain event greater than or equal to 2 inches in a 24-hour period is likely.”

“I mean, come on. How are you going to teach that, much less enforce it,” Smith said.

Smith said she would like an outright application ban from June 1 to Nov. 30 each year. She plans to ask the rest of the commission to consider the idea and schedule a future public hearing on Aug. 4.

Times Staff writer Jake Sheridan contributed to this report.

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Red Tide coverage

Tampa Bay has Red Tide questions. Here are some answers.

Is it safe to eat seafood? Here’s how Red Tide affects what you eat.

Can I go fishing? The state is limiting saltwater fishing.

Piney Point: The environmental disaster may be fueling Red Tide.

Red Tide resources

• The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has a website that tracks where Red Tide is detected.

• Florida Poison Control Centers have a toll-free 24/7 hotline to report illnesses, including from exposure to Red Tide: 1-800-222-1222

• To report dead fish for clean-up in Tampa Bay, call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission at 1-800-636-0511 or file a fish kill report online.

• In St. Petersburg, call the Mayor’s Action Center at 727-893-7111 or use St. Petersburg’s seeclickfix website.

• Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, the county’s tourism wing, runs an online beach dashboard at www.beachesupdate.com.

How to stay safe near the water

• Do not swim around dead fish.

• Those with chronic respiratory problems should be careful and stay away from places with a Red Tide bloom. Leave if you think Red Tide is affecting you.

• Do not harvest or eat mollusks or distressed and dead fish from the area. Fillets of healthy fish should be rised with clean water, and the guts thrown out.

• Pet owners should keep their animals away from the water and from dead fish.

• Residents living near the beach should close their windows and run air conditioners with proper filters.

• Beachgoers can protect themselves by wearing masks.

Source: Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County