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Tough New Anti-Pollution Bill Restricts Fertilizer Use

Originally crafted for Barnegat Bay, newly ratified environmental legislation limits nitrogen and phosphorous runoff throughout the state.

With virtually no debate, the legislature yesterday adopted a bill described by its proponents as the toughest measure regulating the use of fertilizers in the nation.

The bill was approved by both houses easily, belying the contentious lobbying behind the measure. Initially crafted by Save Barnegat Bay staffers as a local ordinance aimed at preventing nitrogen and phosphorus from lawns and golf courses from washing into the bay’s watershed, the legislation will be in force across the state.

The bill now heads to the governor, who said in a press release last week he would sign a bill "that establishes the most restrictive standards in the nation for nitrogen content in fertilizer."

The legislation is part of a package of bills aimed at trying to halt the degradation of Barnegat Bay, which has been portrayed as slowly dying because of overdevelopment and the flood of pollutants washing into the watershed from roads and stormwater systems. The package was developed by Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy committee and Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), the chairman of the Assembly Environment Committee, over a two-year period.

By far the most controversial measure was the fertilizer bill, which sought to address one of the bay’s biggest problems—nutrient runoff. Runoff from lawns, roadways and developments is choking the bay, loading its waters with nitrogen and phosphorus that cause algal blooms, which in turn kill native eel-grass and shellfish.

The bill would establish new standards for the application and content of fertilizers to reduce the runoff. These include requiring that at least 20 percent of the nitrogen in all lawn fertilizers be in slow-release form. It also would prohibit the use of fertilizer during heavy rainfalls and would essentially ban the use of phosphorus.

"It will remove the tons of poisons that have been killing Barnegat Bay," said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. "It is an important and needed step to restore the health of the bay."

Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, said the bill would protect other watersheds beyond Barnegat Bay. "This piece of legislation will not only help protect Barnegat Bay and coastal waters, but will also help protect all of our water resources," he said. "This is especially critical in areas where waterways are already polluted or where we need to protect important water-supply streams and reservoirs."

The bill had been held up in the legislature, largely from lobbying by The Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., a manufacturer of fertilizers. In the end, though, advocates managed to compromise enough to win backing from other manufacturers.

"They were really the only party holding out," McKeon said after the session had ended. "At the end of the day, what they were offering wasn’t anything different than what they already were doing. Every once in a while, the environment wins."

Other bills in the package that advanced yesterday included a bill to require the state Department of Transportation and NJ Transit to fix stormwater systems that drain into Barnegat Bay and a soil compaction bill, which seeks to set up standards so that soil can more easily absorb water, reducing runoff.

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