One of the world’s biggest lawn care companies is announcing today that it will stop making fertilizer with phosphorus, one of two ingredients blamed for pollution problems in Florida’s waterways.

Officials from Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., which dominates roughly half the fertilizer market in Florida and throughout the South, said they were changing their formula to help clean up pollution from storm runoff. The reason: new rules across the country that target fertilizer runoff.

"What drives most of the industry is the legislation that’s occurring across the country," said Rich Shank, chief environmental officer of Scotts, noting new laws in Virginia, New Jersey and New York.

The change is "a big deal" for everyone battling pollution because phosphorus in runoff can spur harmful algae blooms in fresh water, said Holly Greening of the Tampa Bay Estuary Program.

But she predicted it will not end the ongoing controversy over who should regulate fertilizer sales: local governments or state officials.

The Florida House Community and Military Affairs Subcommittee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on HB 457, a bill to pre-empt all local regulations, including one passed by Pinellas County.

"I don’t see that this will change the argument that local governments need to manage local water bodies," she said.

In fact, the change in Scotts Miracle-Gro formula will make little difference in Pinellas, said Kelli Levy of the county’s public works department. For one thing, a smaller company, Sanford-based Sunniland Corp., already sells zero-phosphorus fertilizer in the Tampa Bay area, she said.

For another, phosphorus isn’t the big problem here.

"Water quality issues in coastal counties tend to be nitrogen-driven," she said, naming the second pollutant targeted by fertilizer ordinances – one that Scotts products will still contain.

Nitrogen is the element that spurs algae blooms in saltwater, Greening explained.

Scotts Miracle-Gro, which has $3 billion in sales worldwide, took the step of removing phosphorus from its products after research showed that it’s not really necessary for any lawns except ones that are just getting established, Shank said.

As a result, he said, "by this time next year we will have the phosphorus out of all our products." The exceptions would be a fertilizer just for starter lawns and one that’s made of organic components where the phosphorus is naturally occurring, he said.

Anyone who uses the new phosphorus-free products won’t have to change normal fertilizing patterns or amounts, company officials say, And the results should be the same.

Scotts began working on the new formula five years ago, when efforts to clean up pollution in Chesapeake Bay led to a push to eliminate the fertilizer element blamed for its phosphorus loads, Shank said.

"These companies are trying to do the right thing," said George Hochmuth, the University of Florida’s top fertilizer expert. That means Scotts won’t be the only manufacturer pursuing the no-phosophorus formula. "Down the road, most everybody will start doing this."

Eliminating the phosphorous "wasn’t easy," Shank said. But the nitrogen "is not something we can take out."

Instead the company is working on a new formula that will slow the release of nitrogen so more of it sticks to the lawn and less runs off with the rain.

About 40 city and county governments around Florida have enacted rules on when and what kind of fertilizer can be sold in their areas as an attempt to combat water pollution. However, fertilizer and agriculture industry officials have objected to those local rules and state legislators are considering mandating one statewide standard which would be less stringent than what Pinellas and some other areas require.


By Craig Pittman, St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer