BOSTON — New state legislation putting restrictions on the use of fertilizers to prevent phosphorus runoff into rivers and other bodies of water has gained the approval of both Massachusetts House and Senate lawmakers.
Rep. John Fernandes, D-Milford, had pushed for the bill he says will help municipalities and businesses meet strict Environmental Protection Agency guidelines to reduce phosphorus runoff by addressing one of the biggest contributors — fertilizers.
While most manufacturers are moving away from using phosphorus in their lawn fertilizer products, they are still a big factor in polluting rivers, ponds and streams, environmentalists said.
“What this bill recognizes is another major source of phosphorus is polluted runoff, sometimes referred to as storm water,” Anthony Iarrapino, a clean water program attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, told the State House News Service. “When it rains, rainwater is collected and channelized, falling on parking lots and storm drains. It becomes dissolved in the water that is discharged through storm drains, directly into surface waters without any treatment.”
The federal EPA has ordered municipalities, treatment plants, businesses, and other large producers of wastewater to reduce the amount of phosphorus being discharged by storm water systems into rivers, lakes and streams, where it stimulates algae growth, according to state and local officials.
In its efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act, the EPA is expected to issue more stringent storm water and sewer permits in the coming months that would require all cities and towns along the Charles River to significantly reduce the amount of phosphorus runoff into the river by as much as 50 to 55 percent, Fernandes said.
And the city of Gloucester, which last week signed a revised consent order that’s expected to save the city some $3 million in te advancement of its ongoing combined sewer overflow — or CSO — project, is also still facing a challenged EPA order for a secondary treatment plant controlling the city’s discharge into Gloucester Harbor.
“For municipalities and businesses, it is a scary proposition,” Fernandes said about the proposed EPA regulations, suggesting municipalities would likely have to build storm water treatment facilities to collect and remove phosphorus from water without the legislation that gained House and Senate approval last Thursday.
Fernandes said if the state minimizes the phosphorus content of fertilizers, the amount of phosphorus in water bodies would be lowered, possibly leading to the EPA to consider less onerous reduction goals for communities.
Phosphorus is the driver of toxic algae blooms that make water unsafe, Iarrapino said. Several ponds around the state were closed this month due to algae blooms.
The bill, which now heads to the governor’s desk, requires the use of low-phosphorus or phosphorus-free fertilizers on lawns — with an exemption for new lawns, agriculture and turf farms.
On its ways to passage, the legislation went through several iterations, and was amended again by both House and Senate lawmakers earlier this month.
The final bill passed by the House and Senate is a “bit broader” than the original bill, Fernandes said, giving the Department of Agriculture the ability to regulate all plant nutrients to protect the environment and public health. The legislation gives the Department of Agriculture the authority to specifically create restrictions surrounding phosphorous use.
Numerous other states have adopted phosphorus restrictions or bans in fertilizers, including Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.