After 12 years of failed attempts, Pennsylvania state legislators have passed regulations that will reduce fertilizer use on lawns, golf courses, parks, sports fields and other landscaped areas.
Both branches of the state legislature easily passed the bipartisan measure called the Lawn Fertilizer Bill on July 6. She now returns to Governor Tom Wolf for her expected signing.
The new controls, similar to regulations passed in Maryland and Virginia in 2011, are designed to reduce nutrient pollution that flows into local waterways and travels downstream to the Chesapeake Bay. An overload of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrients cloud the water, cause harmful algal blooms and trigger “dead zones” in the bay.
According to the state Department of Agriculture, about 14 percent of Pennsylvania’s nitrogen load to the bay comes from developed land.
The US Environmental Protection Agency and a coalition of some 225 environmental and conservation groups lobbied for the bill.
Ezra Thrush of the environmental group PennFuture said, “This legislation is a big deal to ongoing efforts to reduce water pollution in Pennsylvania…because excess lawn fertilizer is routinely washed away by the rain and other precipitation and washed away in local rivers and streams.
Pennsylvania’s most recent plan to meet its nutrient reduction goals under the cleanup of the bay agreement included passage of the fertilizer bill. State lawmakers added a stipulation that if the EPA does not provide state credit for nutrient reductions as a result of the new regulations, they would be withdrawn by the end of 2026.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 over-fertilizing turf. Exemptions are provided for farmers.
The measure also requires the state Department of Agriculture to create an education program to educate homeowners and farmers on the proper way to apply fertilizers in environmentally safe amounts.
Those who spread fertilizer in public parks, golf courses, sports fields and other turf areas must follow new standards that prevent spreading fertilizer too close to waterways or at too high a rate . The soil should be tested so that the correct amounts are applied.
Spreading fertilizers on frozen ground and impervious surfaces such as sidewalks and driveways would be prohibited.
Violations of the standards could result in a fine of $50 to $100 for a first offense.
Prior to the vote, lawmakers removed the requirement that landscaping services and other professionals be trained and certified in fertilizer application. Environmental groups and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, made up of Bay state lawmakers, had pushed for its inclusion.
“We wouldn’t have pursued a training and certification program for professionals if we didn’t believe it would provide additional benefits, but this is still a big step forward for Pennsylvania and our efforts to cope with the loads of developed land,” Marel said. King, director of the commission in Pennsylvania.
Despite some disappointment with the bill’s late amendments, groups hailed its long-delayed passage to tackle a major source of unregulated pollutants.
“By ensuring that all do-it-yourself fertilizer products sold in Pennsylvania meet these standards, yes, there should be a reduction in total nitrogen and phosphorus applied in the state,” said said King.
King also said addressing excessive fertilizer applications to turf is important because 70% of developed land is outside of municipalities covered by state-mandated stormwater runoff controls.
State Sen. Gene Yaw, who represents Pennsylvania on the Chesapeake Bay Commission and was the lead sponsor of the fertilizer bill, said it’s time to focus nutrient cuts on sources other than as farmers and sewage treatment plants.
“Unfortunately, as these areas continue to implement nutrient reductions, high urban and suburban stormwater levels continue to grow. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed, grass acres now outnumber corn acres,” Yaw said.
“This legislation will reduce the environmental impact of fertilizers applied to turf areas, such as lawns, golf courses and sports fields, while ensuring that all turf areas in the Commonwealth can receive adequate nutrients so that adverse turf health does not result in an unintended consequence,” he added.
While he found flaws in the bill, support also came from John R. Lake, a retired state agronomist who had called on lawmakers to do even more to stem the spillover of fertilizers to lawn.
“In order to really reduce turf nutrient pollution, we need to rethink our vision of lawns as a turf mix made up of a mixture of grass and legumes that doesn’t require any additional nitrogen. [and] where the clippings are mulched up by the mower and left to feed the soil,” he said.