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August 23, 2010

Water Sentinels Help Pass Tough New Phosphorus Regs


On July 30, New York Governor David Paterson signed into law tough new phosphorus standards that will dramatically reduce the allowable amount of phosphates in lawn fertilizer and dish detergents throughout the state.

The bill, introduced in the state legislature by Assemblyman Bob Sweeney and Senator Antoine Thompson, was championed and abetted by the Sierra Club's Long Island Water Sentinels. That's Water Sentinels volunteer leader Linda Freilich, above left doing water-quality testing, and below with Sweeney.


With the bill's passage, New York joins 16 other states that are clamping down on phosphorus pollution. Water-quality data gathered by Sentinels volunteers buttressed Sweeny's case as he shepherded the bill through the legislature.

"Bob Sweeney is a great friend of the Sierra Club," says Freilich, who also serves as Coastal Waterways chair of the Sierra Club's Long Island Group. "We encouraged him to follow our data in authoring and promoting the phosphorus bill." Below, Water Sentinels volunteer Lou Siegel with a water sample.


Thirty-five to 50 percent of phosphorus pollution in New York comes from fertilizer and detergents, and much of it enters through storm drains and sewage treatment plants. "Treating phosphorus in treatment plants is very expensive, so you really want to stop it at the source," Freilich says. "If you reduce it at the source, you'll reduce it where it enters the waterways."

Below, Bill Stegemann and Joe Aurelio doing water-quality testing.


Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from sewage treatment plants, agricultural runoff, dishwashing detergent, and lawn fertilizer is the most significant form of water pollution in the United States. The most dramatic example of the damage it can do is the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Now grown to the size of Massachusetts, it is so low in oxygen it hardly supports any aquatic life.

"New York is a very fertilizer-friendly state—especially Long Island—and phosphorus in our waterways is much higher than it should be," says Freilich. "We discussed the phosphorus bill with Assemblyman Sweeney back in the spring. Once it was introduced, I contacted the national Water Sentinels program and told them I needed better equipment to test waterways for phosphorus. I had it in two days."

Below, high school student Caitlyn Watson prepares to test water samples.


Freilich and other Sentinels volunteers conducted extensive water-quality testing in five waterways on Long Island's south shore, and let Sweeney know where he could find the results. Next, they sent out emails to members of the Long Island Group and Atlantic Chapter (New York), asking them to write letters to their local state senator urging support for Sweeny's bill.

"Huge credit for getting this bill passed goes to Michael Cafaro, political chair for the Long Island Group," says Freilich. "If not for Michael, we wouldn't have people like Bob Sweeney in the legislature. Michael has worked incredibly hard to cultivate relationships with elected official and help put environmentally-friendly candidates in office." That's Cafaro below, with Sweeney.


The new phosphorus law prohibits household cleansers, dishwashing detergents, and cleansing products used in food processing equipment and dairy equipment from containing more than tiny amounts of phosphorus. Stores have 60 days to sell old inventories. Sales for commercial use are to end July 1, 2013. A similar ban will apply to lawn fertilizers starting in 2012.

Learn more about the Water Sentinels and how you can get involved.


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