Plastic flamingos, St. Pete officials unite to fight proposed pro-fertilizer industry law

04/07/11 Kate Bradshaw
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In recent years, cities throughout Florida have been banning use of certain fertilizers with the hope of curbing water pollution. Now, the state legislature is pushing through a law that would limit local control over fertilizer use. Today St. Petersburg became the latest city to pass a resolution opposing that bill.

The front lawn at St. Petersburg City Hall went kitsch this morning ahead of the City Council meeting. Dozens of pink plastic flamingos covered the small rectangle of grass. It wasn’t a prank that inspired the flock’s installation. In fact, city officials were in on it. It was the work of Tampa Bay Estuary Program spokesperson Nanette O’Hara, who was out there at daybreak sticking their little metal legs into the soil.

"Pink flamingos are a great, fun symbol of Florida for most of us and our campaign is about protecting our fun."

That fun, O’Hara said, revolves around Florida’s waterways, the main draw for millions of tourists each year. She said around three-quarters of Pinellas County’s waterways are impaired, and that nitrogen and phosphorous fertilizers are some of the biggest pollutants.

"And that is what motivated the county and the city of St. Petersburg to pass a very stringent and comprehensive fertilizer ordinance."

The fertilizer ban O’Hara mentioned prohibits sale of nitrogen fertilizer during the summer months, when heavy rains can wash fertilizers into the ocean, and where the nutrients feed harmful algae blooms. She said the danger in not restricting fertilizer runoff demonstrates the close relationship Florida’s economy has to its environment.

"The nightmare is that a lot of fertilizer residues would wash off into our waterways and we would see a very large algae bloom which we have seen typically in summertimes here in the Bay system when it's very hot and that algae would consume oxygen in the water and we could have a bad fish kill."

St. Petersburg Public Works Administrator Michael J. Connors said the city has spent millions cleaning up after fertilizer runoff.

"St. Petersburg, as an example, has spent in excess of $20 million to remove nitrogen that discharges into our Tampa Bay waters through a series of projects involving chemical pre-treatment of storm water runoff and biological settlement of the constituents and other pollutant matters in that storm water runoff."

Legislation in Tallahassee seeks to compromise local bans by exacting a weaker one-size-fits-all policy across the board. Connors said the bill is being championed by powerful fertilizer industry leaders afraid of losing money, even though there are multiple alternatives on the market.

"Whenever you have a lot of money involved in a particular product that is now being regulated to prevent the use of that product, you're going to draw the attention of some big money people that typically migrate toward the state lawmakers."

Today, the House State Affairs Committee passed an amendment to the bill that would create a grandfather clause for St. Petersburg and other cities and counties with a fertilizer ban in place. It would allow municipalities without one to pass similar laws, though they’d have to be substantially weaker. A short time later the St. Petersburg City Council passed an ordinance opposing the legislation, though it is unclear weather the council members knew about the amendment in Tallahassee, which was filed by St. Petersburg Representative Jeff Brandes. Connors said if the law passes, it would compromise cities’ and counties’ ability to comply with new federal water pollution guidelines.

"To strip our authority to regulate fertilizer use, which speaks directly to complying with these unfunded federal mandates, is contrary to common sense."

Cities throughout Florida have been passing similar resolutions opposing the softened fertilizer restrictions making their way through the legislature. These include Naples and Sanibel Island.

Previous WMNF news coverage of the 2011 legislative session

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