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TC Palm: Editorial: Unusual partnership should provide important data on pollution of Indian River Lagoon

Friday, February 21, 2014

The partnership between a nonprofit conservation organization and the world’s largest fertilizer dealer on a study of pollution within the Indian River Lagoon is an odd one and holds risks for both.

But, the Fort Pierce-based Ocean Research & Conservation Association and Scotts Miracle-Gro Co. deserve credit for taking that risk.

Most importantly, there are potential benefits for both entities and for people who care about the health of the lagoon.

Scotts is to fund a two-year, $500,000 project for ORCA to measure pollution in two canals entering the lagoon. Researchers will look for sources, including chemicals such as those found in fertilizers similar to those sold by Scotts.

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

In a prepared statement, Scotts CEO Jim Hagedorn, who owns a home on the St. Lucie River estuary, said, “I’m a resident of the Treasure Coast and I understand how important it is for all of us to help find solutions to 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.”

Having a fertilizer company with worldwide annual sales of about $2.8 billion funding a study on how it may be damaging the lagoon may pose the greatest risk for ORCA. Its reputation for impartiality is at stake.

As a buffer between the company and ORCA, an independent committee is being created to oversee the project. Widder explained 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.”

No one on the committee will be associated with ORCA or Scotts.

Robin Dannhower, ORCA’s vice president of marketing and public relations, said this week the committee will probably be made up of five to eight members, including people with backgrounds in science and in conservation, and government officials.

The committee likely will be named about April 15 with work to begin before May 1. The makeup of the committee will be scrutinized carefully. ORCA must be vigilant to ensure members are properly vetted.

Many Treasure Coast governments during the past year have instituted bans on lawn fertilizers during the rainy summer season. Representatives of Scotts have opposed those bans.

If ORCA’s study finds fertilizer is not a significant factor in lagoon pollution, local governments might be asked to reconsider their bans. That could be the plus side for Scotts’ financing of the study.

Whatever the results, the study will provide important scientific knowledge that could help determine future policies related to improving the lagoon’s health.

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