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TC Palm: Analysis: Fertilizer maker to fund ORCA research into lagoon pollutants

Monday, February 10, 2014

Like politics, research along the Indian River Lagoon makes strange bedfellows.

Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the world’s largest dealer of lawn fertilizer, is funding a two-year, $500,000 project by the Fort Pierce-based Ocean Research & Conservation Association to find and assess sources of pollution in the lagoon.

Environmentalists and researchers, including members of the ORCA team, claim chemicals in fertilizer runoff are a major cause of algae blooms and seagrass loss in the lagoon. ORCA has advocated for tough ordinances in municipalities along the lagoon to ban the use of residential fertilizer during the summer rainy season, when runoff into ditches, creeks and canals along the lagoon is most likely to occur.

Scotts has opposed those ordinances, claiming fertilizer use in the summer stimulates grass growth when it’s needed most to absorb runoff and keep it out of the lagoon.

In the study to be funded by Scotts, ORCA will select two canals that discharge pollutants into the lagoon and search for the sources of the pollution, including phosphorus, nitrogen, heavy metals and toxins.

“We’ll not only be looking for contributing pollutants to the lagoon,” said Warren Falls, ORCA’s managing director, “but where they come from and how to correct the problem.”

Edith “Edie” Widder, ORCA president, CEO and senior scientist, said the organization she helped start is “all about finding creative solutions to problems. We’ll work with whoever wants to find the source of those problems and work out solutions.”

Widder added: “We told (Scotts) that if we find out their fertilizer is part of the problem, we’re going to say it loud and clear. And they said, ‘OK.’”


Expecting a pollution study paid for by a fertilizer company would be seen as “the fox guarding the henhouse,” Widder said, an independent oversight committee of local scientists, environmentalists and government representatives will be established “to be a buffer between us and (Scotts).”

Widder said the committee “will be part of the process every step of the way. We’ll clear our methodology before we start, because the way an experiment is set up can bias the findings. We’ll keep reporting to them during the experiment; if we have to make any modifications, we’ll run them by the committee first. And when we’re ready to go public with our conclusions, the committee will review them first to make sure one plus one equals two, not 2.1.”

The makeup of the committee should be announced soon, Falls said, adding, “We’ve talked to a bunch of people about it already.”

Falls said no one associated with ORCA or the fertilizer industry will be eligible to be on the committee.

“Yeah, people will probably be wondering if there’s a conflict of interest here,” said Brian Lapointe, a research professor at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce. “In Florida, there’s a long tradition of what’s called ‘the best research money can buy,’ meaning paying to get the results you want.”

Lapointe, who has studied the effects of septic tank runoff as a source of pollution and algae blooms in the lagoon, added, “It’s interesting a fertilizer company would sponsor a study like that, especially since ORCA has been pointing the finger at fertilizer. I’ve never seen it before.”

Lapointe called the study’s oversight committee “a good thing, as long as ORCA has people with the proper technical expertise to make sure the science is good looking over their shoulder.”

Indian Riverkeeper Marty Baum, who has questioned the authenticity of research used in the fertilizer industry’s attempts to stop rainy season bans, supports the ORCA-Scotts project.

“I think it’s wonderful that industry is contributing to the effort,” Baum said. “This study created by ORCA and funded by Scott Miracle-Gro should provide all of us working on the lagoon with valuable information and solutions for problems plaguing our lagoon. I believe with ORCA’s science and integrity, this will become a model project, and I trust ORCA to remain fair and impartial about the results.”


Widder said Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn approached ORCA with the idea of funding lagoon-related research.

Hagedorn has owned a home on a 2.7-acre lot on the St. Lucie River estuary, which flows into the lagoon, just north of Sandsprit Park since January 2010. Lance Latham, Scotts’ communications and public relations director, said the home is Hagedorn’s primary residence.

“He’s there all times of the year, but mostly in the winter,” Latham said, adding Hagedorn works primarily out of the company’s West Palm Beach office. The Ohio-based company has worldwide sales of about $2.8 billion a year under the Scotts, Miracle-Gro and Ortho brands.

In a prepared statement, Hagedorn wrote: “I’m a resident of the Treasure Coast, and I understand how important it is for all of us to help find solutions for major water quality problems. Dr. Widder and the ORCA team are top-notch scientists, and we approached them about this project because their credibility is beyond reproach. They’re committed to finding facts about the significant water issues affecting everyone who lives and works here, and so are we.”

Mark Slavens, Scotts vice president of environmental affairs, said Friday company officials “want to know what impact our industry has. If we need to make changes, we’ll make changes, whether it’s in product formulation or in improving ways consumers use our products.”

Asked if results from the ORCA study could prompt Scotts to reverse its opposition to summer fertilizer bans, Slavens said, “If the findings are that there are high rates of fertilizer in runoff during the rainy season, we’ll need to address that. But it should go both ways. If there’s no evidence of runoff, (municipalities) should have a willingness to look at their bans.”

Latham said Scotts reaching out “to a group like ORCA, which is very credible and very independent. shows the sincerity of our commitment.”

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