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Washington bans detergent phosphates

With the rushing Spokane River as a backdrop, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday signed the nation’s first statewide ban on dishwashing detergents with phosphates as part of an effort to protect rivers and fish.

“If you live here and you love the Spokane River, you know we’ve got some work to do to save it,” Gregoire told a crowd of legislators, county and city officials, business leaders and environmentalists who gathered in the downtown library near a wall of windows overlooking the falls.

The city and county are preparing to spend tens of millions of dollars on new waste treatment plants to take dangerous chemicals out of the water, Spokane County Board Chairman Todd Mielke said. It’s much easier if they never get put in.

“There is nothing that is more important as an asset (for Spokane) than the river and the aquifer,” Mielke said.

Starting July 1, 2008, stores in Spokane, Whatcom and Clark counties will stop selling automatic dishwashing detergents with phosphates. Two years later, the ban will go into effect across the state. But it only applies to residential use – restaurants and institutional kitchens will still be able to use detergents with phosphates.

Detergent manufacturers had opposed the ban, saying that detergents with phosphates get dishes cleaner, and when they’ve tested products without those chemicals, they get complaints from customers. The restaurant industry also balked, saying it needs phosphates to get large loads of dishes cleaner in high-speed institutional washers.

In the river, however, phosphates spur the growth of algae. When the algae dies and decays, it uses up oxygen, which kills fish. In 1993, the Legislature banned phosphates in laundry detergents for the same reason.

The moving force behind the bill was Richard Reed, an environmental activist who lives near the Little Spokane River above Chattaroy. One day in 2004 while buying dishwashing detergent, he happened to read the ingredients on the box and was surprised to find they included phosphates.

He wasn’t aware that the 1993 law only covered laundry detergent.

“I discovered I’d been putting phosphates in the river for all these years,” Reed said.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Timm Ormsby, a Spokane Democrat, offered two compromises in its final version. First, it concentrates on residential consumers of dishwashing detergent, just as the ban on laundry detergents did 13 years ago. Supporters in the Legislature said the non-phosphate detergents work just as well for home use.

Second, it delays the start of the ban. Instead of beginning statewide ban this July, the ban starts next July in three counties with phosphate problems, and in July 2010 in the rest of the state.

The delays should give merchants and distributors time to sell their current stock of phosphate-laden detergents, Gregoire said.