State Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto (Pic by Meredith Geddings, via myfloridahouse.gov)

A Florida House subcommittee today debated the pros and cons of a bill (H.B. 421), sponsored by state Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Lecanto, that has come under fire for taking power away from local communities, which currently have jurisdiction over fertilizer rules.

As it is written, 421 “provides that persons who have obtained the limited certification for urban landscape commercial fertilizer application by the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (DACS) are required to follow best management practices and that they are exempt from local government ordinances that address the fertilization of urban turfs, lawns, and landscapes.”

The bill is a follow-up to last year’s controversial fertilizer bill, which sought to preempt all local government fertilizer regulations.

Critics argue that the “limited certification” that exempts those applying fertilizers from local government ordinances is simply not strong enough.

According to the Sierra Club’s David Cullen, certification occurs after the completion of a 72-minute course that requires no pre-requesities, costs only $20 and can be passed with a grade of 75 percent.

“Holding ‘limited certification’ is not the same thing as being a professional in the original sense of the word,” Cullen told the committee today, adding that the primary focus of a fertilizer applicator isn’t to watch out for water quality, but to make customers happy.

Cullen told the committee that fertilizer application bans “have not put applicators out of business,” but have led to “marked reductions in nitrogen, phosphorus  and chlorophyll-A.”

“It doesn’t matter how much training [the applicator] has had. … When it rains, that fertilizer goes into the water,” he said.

According to many of the bill’s opponents (which include the Florida League of Cities and Clean Water Action), it benefits one interest group, fertilizer applicators, while other facets of Florida’s economy (waterfront property values, tourism, and recreational and commercial fishing) aren’t being considered.

Further, they argued that local governments must be able to regulate the amount of nutrients that go in to their waterbodies, because they are the ones ultimately responsible for the waterbodies’ health.

Some committee members, including state Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, pointed out that the nitrogen load of reclaimed water (which is often used to irrigate lawns) can be larger than that of commercial fertilizers.

“[The nutrient loads] vary according to the source of reclaimed water,” said Cullen, but the treatment of reclaimed water “is exponentially higher than the cost of controlling pollution at the source. Every application of lawn fertilizer is a potential pollution event.”

Kurt Spitzer, representing the Florida Stormwater Association, agreed with Cullen, arguing that controlling nutrients once they have entered the water is a far more expensive feat than simply limiting them at the source.

“Your communities are under the gun,” said Spitzer. “Your cities and your counties face enormous costs for compliance with water quality criteria, whether they’re EPA or DEP criteria. … Even though they are much more reasonable, the [DEP] criteria are still very expensive and it’s going to be a multi-billion dollar cost for local governments. … If you look at the DEP costs for construction … they can run up to $50,0000 per pound to construct a device to remove phosphorus.”

Associated Industries of Florida Vice President Jose Gonzalez asked that the committee support the bill, arguing that it would help small businesses. “Our association has a number of members that ask for a regulatory environment that rewards their time and training and all of the scientific knowledge that’s behind this process,” said Gonzales, who said that a “patchwork of opposition [makes] it difficult for small companies to do their business.”

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