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Pennsylvania lawmakers move to limit fertilizer use on developed lands


After 12 years of failed attempts, Pennsylvania state lawmakers have passed regulations that will reduce fertilizer use on home lawns, golf courses, parks, athletic fields and other developed lands.

Both arms of the state legislature handily approved the bipartisan measure referred to as the Lawn Fertilizer Bill on July 6. It now goes to Gov. Tom Wolf for his expected signature.

The new controls, similar to regulations that were passed in Maryland and Virginia in 2011, are designed to reduce nutrient pollution that flows into local waterways and moves downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. An overload of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus cloud the water, cause harmful algae blooms and trigger “dead zones” in the Bay.

According to the state Department of Agriculture, about 14% of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen load to the Bay comes from developed land.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a coalition of some 225 environmental and conservation groups pushed for the bill.

Ezra Thrush of the PennFuture environmental group said, “This legislation is a big deal for ongoing efforts to cut water pollution in Pennsylvania ... because excess lawn fertilizer routinely gets washed away by rain and other precipitation and swept into local rivers and streams.”

Pennsylvania’s most recent blueprint for meeting its nutrient-reduction goals as part of the Bay cleanup agreement included passage of the fertilizer bill. State legislators added a stipulation that if the EPA doesn’t give the state credit for nutrient reductions as a result of the new regulations, they would be withdrawn at the end of 2026.

If Wolf signs the bill, the regulations will ban phosphorus (except for lawn-repair purposes) and limit the amount of nitrogen that can be sold in bags. It also requires labels to guide users against overfertilizing turf. Exemptions are made for farmers.

The measure also requires the state Department of Agriculture to create an education program to inform homeowners and farmers about the correct way to apply fertilizer in amounts safe to the environment.

Those who apply fertilizers to public parks, golf courses, athletic fields and other turf areas must follow new standards that guard against fertilizer being applied too close to waterways or at too high a rate. The soil must be tested so that correct amounts are applied.

Fertilizers would be prohibited from being spread on frozen ground and impervious surfaces such as sidewalks and driveways.

Violations of the standards could net a fine of $50 to $100 for a first offense.

Before the vote, legislators removed a requirement that landscaping services and other professionals be trained and certified in fertilizer application. Environmental groups and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, made up of lawmakers from Bay states, had pushed for its inclusion.

“We wouldn’t have pursued a training and certification program for professionals if we didn’t believe it would have provided additional benefit, but this is still a big step forward for Pennsylvania and our efforts to address loads from developed lands,” said Marel King, the commission’s Pennsylvania director.

Despite some disappointments over late changes to the bill, groups praised its long-delayed passage for tackling a significant source of unregulated pollutants.

“By ensuring that all do-it-yourself fertilizer products sold in Pennsylvania are compliant with these standards, yes, there should be a reduction in total nitrogen and phosphorus applied in the state,” King said.

King also said addressing overapplications of fertilizers on turf was important because 70% of developed lands are outside municipalities covered by state-mandated stormwater runoff controls.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, who represents Pennsylvania on the Chesapeake Bay Commission and was the prime sponsor of the fertilizer bill, said it was time to focus nutrient reductions on sources other than farmers and sewage-treatment plants.

“Unfortunately, as these sectors continue to implement nutrient reductions, high levels in urban and suburban storm water continue to grow. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, acres of turf now outnumber acres of corn,” Yaw said.

“This legislation will reduce the environmental impact of fertilizer applied to turf areas, such as lawns, golf courses and athletic fields, while ensuring all turf areas within the commonwealth will be able to receive adequate nutrients so that adverse turf health will not result as an unintended consequence,” he added.

Though he found shortcomings in the bill, support also came from John R. Lake, a retired state agronomist who had called for legislators to do even more to stem the overflow of lawn fertilizers.

“In order to truly reduce nutrient pollution from turf, we need to revise our view of lawns to a mixed sod consisting of a grass and legume mixture that does not require any supplemental nitrogen [and] where clippings are mulched by the mower and left to feed the soil,” he said.