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Ohio Senate approves farm runoff bill

Legislation on Lake Erie algae advances to House

COLUMBUS — “I’m counting on this being a unanimous vote. This one should be,” said state Sen. Cliff Hite (R., Findlay) on Wednesday.

He got it. The Ohio Senate voted to send a bill to the House implementing restrictions on land application of manure and other fertilizers that contribute to the nutrients feeding pea souplike algal blooms on Lake Erie.

“It is time for us to act on what we know we can achieve and get done this spring on this important issue,” said Sen. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green), one of Senate Bill 1’s sponsors. “We know our task is not finished today.”

The bill would prohibit the application of manure and other fertilizers containing phosphorous and nitrogen on ground that is frozen, snow-covered, or saturated.

Manure also could not be applied when the weather forecast calls for a 50 percent or better chance of half an inch of precipitation over the next 12 hours. The threshold for dry chemical fertilizers would be an inch over 24 hours.

The provisions included in the bill are those on which there was largely agreement among agricultural and environmental groups, a move designed to spur quick legislative action. But even some supporters argue that the bill still contains loopholes allowing application of fertilizers when they are less likely to be absorbed into the soil.

Fertilizer could be applied if the farmer injects it into the soil or plows it under within 48 hours.

Several of the provisions affecting manure had been pushed by Sen. Edna Brown (D., Toledo) in separate legislation.

Critics also question a five-year expiration date on the new restrictions. A separate bill being considered in the House contains no sunset.

The Ohio Environmental Council would like to see more steps taken to address the manure trucked away from major livestock operations, something Gov. John Kasich proposes to do in his recently introduced budget proposal. His proposal would require haulers to receive certification similar to what was recently mandated for applicators of chemical fertilizers.

“Sometimes you need to make small steps rather than a big leap,” said Adam Rissien of the Ohio Environmental Council. “We’d like to get at some of the problems of manure management from [large livestock farms], and we’re beginning to see that in the budget bill. We agree the focus has to be on trying to improve manure and fertilizer application.”

Violators could be fined up to $10,000.

Farmers have worked with lawmakers on the bills, all the while arguing that farming is only one of the causes of nutrient runoff along with overflowing septic tanks and sewage treatment plants, lawn fertilizers, and other sources.

“Legislators have included agriculture in discussions from the beginning, and this bill represents a science-based approach to tackling some of the challenges we face in maintaining clean waterways for all Ohioans,” said Tommie Price, president of the Ohio Soybean Association.

At the request of cities, the Senate also removed a provision in the bill that would have cracked down on municipal septic systems. The cities say they are working on a compromise.

The bill contains a clause that would allow it to take effect immediately upon the governor’s signature. Mr. Gardner noted that, should the House act quickly, the bill could become law at roughly the same time that House Bill 490, last year’s failed effort, would have taken effect if it had passed.

Contact Jim Provance at: jprovance@theblade.com or 614-221-0496.

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