International Call for PA to Limit Lawn Chemicals

  • The middle number is "0," because there is no phosphorus in these fertilizer bags. Photo: Julie Grant

April 25, 2014

Algal blooms continue to plague many waterways around Pennsylvania, including Lake Erie and the Chesapeake Bay. Farms and wastewater have gotten a lot of attention, for contributing nutrients that create these harmful blooms. More recently, the spotlight has focused on lawn care. Grass fertilizers also contain the phosphorus and nitrogen that wind up in waterways. Now international regulators and others are pushing Pennsylvania to ban some lawn fertilizers.

Michael Pelletier spreads fertilizer pellets in the grass of a manicured, park-like area, behind a new business development.

“Once the fertilizer starts to work, you’ll see the color improve, the turf will fill in, some of these thin areas in the shade will fill in a little more, it’ll recover from the winter damage, the plants should be strong, healthy, dense turf.”

Pelletier has been doing this kind of work for more than thirty years.

But these days fertilizer is getting a bad name—because it can run off the land and into waterways. The Great Lakes, particularly Lake Erie, as well as the Chesapeake Bay have been choked with algal blooms in recent years. And fertilizer ingredients such as nitrogen, and especially phosphorus, are getting much of the blame.

“Well, it’s fertilizer, and so what happens is when it runs off it fertilizes the water, literally.”

Dave Dempsey is a policy advisor at the International Joint Commission. The IJC regulates the lakes and rivers along the U.S. Canadian border. Dempsey says nearly every state and province bordering the Great Lakes limits phosphorus in lawn fertilizers. In a report earlier this year, the IJC called on Ontario, Ohio and Pennsylvania, to take action, as the only three without phosphorus bans. He says its common sense.

“Most lawns don’t need phosphorus to begin with. Most have enough in the soil. We’re essentially just putting phosphorus on the ground to run off, we’re wasting money as consumers, and we’re creating an environmental problem.”

Another call to action is coming from Pennsylvania’s neighbors to south, from the Chesapeake Bay Commission, a partnership between Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to restore the health of the Bay. The other members have put limits on nitrogen and phosphorus in lawn fertilizers sold in their states.

Pennsylvania Senator Mike Brubaker of Lancaster County has introduced a similar bill in Pennsylvania. He says there’s more grass fields than farm fields near the Bay.

“There’s more acreage of grass then there is field corn, or wheat, or oats or any other crop. So putting a more moderate amount on, less will ultimately go into the water course, and into the Chesapeake Bay.”

Brubaker’s bill limits the nitrogen in lawn fertilizers, and bans phosphorus, except in seed-starting fertilizers. And lawn care professionals, like the Michael Pelletier, will need to get certified by the state to apply fertilizers.

But some groups say the law won’t help the Bay or Lake Erie, and might even harm water quality. Gregg Robertson, with the Pennsylvania Lawn and Nursery Association, says most people don’t fertilize enough: a healthy stand of lawn, or turf grass, holds on to lawn chemicals, so they don’t run off into waterways. Robertson says all the state laws ignore this.

“They weren’t paying any attention to the science. This basic assumption if you put less fertilizer on that you’ll get less pollution is, in fact, not true. You fertilize until you get a nice, healthy stand of turfgrass, and that actually reduces pollution.”

While some researchers do agree, a healthy lawn can better hold on to chemicals, using fewer chemicals has also worked. John Lehman is a biologist at the University of Michigan, who’s been studying the Huron River for more than a decade. He found a big change in 2008, after the city of Ann Arbor started limiting lawn fertilizers.

“Frankly, I was quite surprised that even after the first year, we could see an effect.”

Lehman says the ban reduced phosphorus in the River by 25 percent.

“If it was only one year, we’d have to think that that was perhaps coincidental, but we saw it repeated three years in a row.”

Since then the state of Michigan and others in the Great Lakes have passed limits on lawn chemicals. Lehman says the health of Lakes Michigan and Superior has improved in recent years. Lake Erie remains the most polluted with fertilizer nutrients, and the most troubled with algal blooms.

And while the international community and others push for Pennsylvania and Ohio to take action, lawn care like professionals Michael Pelletier say a fertilizer law will cost him and consumers more money, will be impossible to police, and make little difference for the environment.

“I do not think this law is necessary. It is not in our best interest to over fertilize a lawn, and excessively use fertilizer, it’s the most expensive product that we use.”

Pelletier’s company already uses fertilizers without phosphorus, because it’s not necessary for a healthy lawn, and it saves money. And as more states have passed lawn chemical limits, most of those big bags on the shelves at Home Depot and elsewhere are also being formulated with  zero phosphorus content.