The Maryland Senate is poised to delay the implementation of a statewide ban on dishwasher detergent containing polluting phosphorus that seeps into the Chesapeake Bay, in response to objections from consumer products giant Procter & Gamble, which said it cannot meet the original deadline.
Senators gave preliminary approval yesterday to legislation that would push back the ban's implementation by six months, to July 2010. The change would come one year after the General Assembly passed the ban on nearly all phosphorus in the detergents, which environmentalists say are discharged into the bay through sewers and other avenues, and contribute to algae blooms, fish kills and dead zones.
Environmentalists and some lawmakers decried the proposed delay. Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, said that moving back the deadline for complying with the law would lead to an additional 7.5 tons of phosphorus ending up in the bay. He called the legislation a "license to pollute."
"What we're doing here is saying to Procter & Gamble, 'You can back your truck up to the Chesapeake Bay and dump 7.5 tons of additional phosphorus into it,'" Frosh said.
But proponents said the legislation is a reasonable concession to the detergent industry, which fought the ban last year by arguing that phosphorus-free detergents don't get dishes and silverware as clean. Companies including Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser, a British supplier of household goods, told lawmakers they would not be able to roll out a substitute in time.
Procter & Gamble, which has a cosmetics manufacturing plant in Hunt Valley, makes Cascade dishwasher detergent. Reckitt Benckiser makes Electrasol detergent.
Reckitt Benckiser spokesman Tony Brand said phosphates are "extremely effective" as a water softener "and the removal of phosphates could impact the overall performance of the product." He noted that the industry has voluntarily agreed to decrease phosphate content in detergent to less than 0.5 percent - the threshold required in Maryland law - by July 2010.
"We are currently evaluating options to maintain the same high quality our customers have come to expect from Electrasol while meeting the industry's commitment," he said.
Washington was the first state to pass a phosphorus ban two years ago, and several states, including Maryland, followed suit. According to the Soap and Detergent Association, a Washington-based trade group, all of the states except Maryland made their bans effective in July 2010.
Dennis Griesing, a spokesman for the trade group, said the industry lobbied for a uniform effective date for the ban so that companies have time to complete the undertaking of rolling out reformulated products, including building new chemical plants, retooling production facilities and launching marketing and distribution.
Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Prince George's County Democrat and sponsor of the delay bill in the House of Delegates, said that extending the ban's effective date was a "small price to pay" in exchange for the industry's support for phosphorus reduction. He also said that while other companies will be offering products that meet the lower-phosphate threshold in time, they have a smaller market share.
"It's a question of what makes common sense," he said. "We're dealing with big industries, millions of transactions, and you want it to work smoothly."
Environmental groups point out that Colgate-Palmolive recently unveiled a phosphate-free dishwasher detergent and that other companies will soon be offering similar products. Brad Heavner, director of Environment Maryland, called the proposed delay of implementation a "giveaway to the industry."
Thomas W. Simpson, a professor at the University of Maryland, said in written testimony on the bill that dishwashing detergent contributes about 30,000 pounds of phosphorus to the bay in an average year, and that it would cost $2.2 million to reduce that amount of phosphorus from the bay.
Frosh tried to amend the bill to allow companies to get an extension if they pay for the remediation of the bay necessitated by their detergents, but senators rejected the proposal. Frosh also proposed changing the title of the bill to the Procter & Gamble Relief Act of 2008.
Senators put off action on that idea. A final vote on the bill in that chamber is expected in the coming days. The House has not voted on a companion measure.