Phosphate bans bubble up in Northwest

The Northwest's next environmental drama will be a soap opera. Earlier this month, the Missoula, Mont., City Council, bucked opposition from the nation's laundry-soap makers and unanimously adopted a ban on the sale of phosphate detergents.

The region's environmentalists and miners of elemental phosphaters are staying tuned for reruns of the Missoula action. Phosphate bans may spread westward along the Clark Fork River drainage.

Detergent-industry officials say about 25 percent of the nation's population lives in no-phosphate zones around water bodies such as Chesapeake Bay and the Great Lakes. But the push in the late 1960s and early '70s for phosphate bans faded before it reached the inland Northwest.

But with population growth in the mountain states has come water pollution, and the inevitable call for phosphate-detergent bans.

Idaho will be the next target for phosphate bans.

On the weekend of Dec. 3, the board of directors of the Clark Fork Coalition met to plan a strategy for winning approval of phosphate detergent bans around Idaho's Lake Pend Oreille. The second largest lake in the West, Pend Oreille is increasingly covered with algae blooms that indicate excess nutrient buildup.

The coalition, a water-quality activist group, promoted the Missoula phosphate ban and is working for similar bans in nearby Idaho and Washington.

South of Lake Pend Oreille, near Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho, a phosphate ban is being considered by a study group called the Spokane River Dischargers.

Lake Coeur d'Alene discharges into the Spokane River, which flows into Washington and through downtown Spokane.

In addition to acting as detergent boosters, phosphates are fertilizers. The phosphates in detergents are blamed for fueling excessive algae growth in the Clark Fork River and Lake Pend Oreille. Activists are worried that the algae growth will start up in the Spokane River as well.

Southern Idaho's phosphate mining industry is expected to oppose the proposed Lake Pend Oreille ban.

``It's not as clear-cut an issue with a simple solution as the Clark Fork Coalition has promoted,'' said FMC spokesman Mike Smith on Thursday.

The Monsanto Company, FMC Corporation, and a branch of J.R. Simplot Company employ about 1,300 people in Idaho and will fight to protect those jobs, Smith said.

``The solution [to water-quality problems] unfortunately is a quantum leap from banning phosphate detergents,'' said Mr. Smith. He said phosphate bans tend to distract the public's attention from real solutions.

The coalition has hired Ruth Watkins, a longtime environmental activist, to organize the push for the ban around Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho.

Ms. Watkins will be working in a region where successful candidates for city, county, and state office pledge support for environmental concerns.

Still, Watkins said a ban will not pass easily.

``It's going to be quite a bit different here in Idaho than in Missoula, [where the detergent] industry did not find out until the City Council had made up its mind,'' she said.

``Now we've got everybody's attention, I think it's going to be a little more difficult'' to convince local government to set aside industry objections, she said.

She may face more than industry opposition.

Mike Beckwith, the state Division of Environmental Quality staff aide in charge of a federally funded study of the water quality in Lake Pend Oreille, is lukewarm about phosphate detergent bans on the big lake.

``I personally wish they'd hold off for a little while,'' he said.

While phosphate is the nutrient of concern in most Northwest lakes, Mr. Beckwith said there is not yet enough scientific data to show that a phosphate ban is needed in Lake Pend Oreille.

He said his office has to remain neutral, and he is urging the coalition to move carefully to avoid alienating people whose support may be needed later, if the results of the lake study call for drastic action around the popular lake.

Coalition director Peter Nielsen said the coalition is being careful not to let people think a phosphate ban will solve all of Lake Pend Oreille's algae problems.

He said the coalition's goal is to help protect the lake from any further deterioration.

``The phosphate ban is proposed as a means to hold the line while the studies are under way,'' he said.

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