The Magazine

Another Triumph for the Greens

To go with toilets that don’t flush and light bulbs that don’t light, we now have dishwashers that don’t wash.

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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In 2000, Washington state’s Department of Ecology finally got around to creating a computer model for the Spokane River. They subcontracted the work to Tom Cole, an Army Corps of Engineers consultant living in Mississippi. Cole’s job was to: (1) determine what the levels of dissolved oxygen in the Spokane actually were—no easy task, since levels vary greatly by location; (2) figure out what the levels should be in nature; and (3) work backward to calculate how much phosphorus the river can handle while still keeping dissolved oxygen levels within a range determined to be acceptable under the Clean Water Act. The entire exercise was as much computer-assisted speculation as actual science. But even if the model of the Spokane’s TMDL was somewhat academic, its consequences were not.

Spokane has a single water-treatment plant to handle both the city and the surrounding county. As of 2001, the plant handled 40 million gallons of wastewater per day. But because of growth, demand for the area was projected to rise to 60 million gallons per day by 2020. To meet this demand, the county wanted to build another treatment facility.

In 2003, the county completed its study for a new water-treatment plant, culminating in a plan to build a $73.4 million facility. The state Department of Ecology agreed to the scheme and indicated they would grant the requisite permits. But a few months later, Ecology changed its mind. After being threatened by a lawsuit from the Sierra Club, the department concluded that building the new plant would be a violation of the Clean Water Act. It turns out that the EPA considered the Spokane an “impaired” waterway. This may sound drastic, but the EPA found 600 bodies of water to be impaired in Washington state alone. And the EPA would not allow construction of any new plant until a TMDL plan was put in place.

Thus began Spokane’s mania for phosphorus reduction. Because the county was running out of sewer capacity, it faced two choices: (1) a moratorium on all building once its water-treatment facility’s capacity was reached; or (2) finding a way to mollify the EPA so it could build the new plant.

The ensuing negotiations took years and illustrate some of the stranger aspects of modern environmentalism. In 2004 it was determined that an average of 229 pounds of phosphorus went into the river each day. The city of Spokane went to work spending $125 million to upgrade its existing treatment plant in an effort to lower phosphorus emissions. Partly because of these improvements, by 2006 the total phosphorus discharge into the Spokane was down to 195 pounds per day. The new proposed water-treatment plant promised to filter out 99 percent of incoming phosphorus and emit only 35 pounds per day. The Department of Ecology wanted the amount of phosphorus put into the river cut to 5 pounds per day. Total.

Jim Correll, of CH2M Hill, the engineering firm hired to build the new plant, explained in 2006 that the state’s requirement was not scientifically possible. “The technology does not yet exist to do anything like what we expect the DOE to require,” he told the Spokane Journal of Business. To achieve the limits Ecology officials wanted, phosphorus emissions would have to be under 10 micrograms per liter. This was achievable only in a lab and, even then, only sometimes. Correll explained, “You can get below 10 micrograms per liter, but you can’t stay there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And the process would be horrifically expensive.”

The good news was that the Department of Ecology understood that it was asking the impossible: It provided a 20-year window to achieve the new standard and allowed that after the first 10 years the requirement could be revised if no technology had arisen to satisfy the government’s fiat. As the local Spokesman-Review reported, “Dave Peeler, the Ecology Department’s water quality program manager, said even though the goals are listed in the report, the department understands that current technology may not allow wastewater dischargers to reach them.”

But impossible didn’t come cheap. The city of Spokane upped its own commitment to filtering phosphorus to a staggering $400 million over 12 years. (The city’s entire 2006 budget was $508.8 million.) The price tag on the county’s proposed water-treatment plant kept inching upwards from the original $73.4 million, finally hitting $167 million. (The plant is under construction now and set to begin operation in 2012.) Local businesses pitched in, too. Despite claiming that the phosphorus-reduction plan was “a threat to our continued existence as a viable business,” Inland Empire Paper dedicated $19 million to reduce their output in an effort to satisfy the TMDL. Noting the “unattainable” standard, Doug Krapas, the company’s environmental officer, explained, “We have no problem putting in the best technology we can find, but it just is not there.”

It was in the midst of Spokane’s phosphorus-reduction mania that two politicians got the idea to ban dishwasher detergents containing phosphates. In April 2005, one of Spokane’s state representatives, Democrat Timm Ormsby, proposed a bill requiring that any dish detergent sold or distributed in the state contain less than 0.5 percent phosphorus. At the time, Ormsby didn’t think the bill had much of a chance. “I thought we were up against a pretty steep challenge,” he says, “given that other states had tried and failed.” The bill sat stewing until, a few months later, Spokane County commissioner Todd Mielke, a Republican, proposed a phosphate-detergent ban for the county. That fall, Mielke held public meetings to try to raise support for a ban. Mielke said, “We’re to the point that the technology [in sewage treatment plants] will get us 95 percent there. We have to really start to challenge ourselves to how we can come up with that last 5 percent.”

During the public meetings, the Soap and Detergent Association (today the American Cleaning Institute) pushed back. A representative from Procter & Gamble explained to the people of Spokane that the company had tried selling phosphate-free detergents in Arizona and Europe in the 1990s. It was a debacle. Product complaints increased by 600 percent, consumers drove across state lines to get the original formula, and the company took losses of $300 million on the effort.

What’s more, it wasn’t clear how environmentally friendly phosphate-free detergents would be on balance. Because they’re less robust, they often cause people to wash dishes by hand, wasting water. (Given the efficiency of modern dishwashers, handwashing tends to use far more water.) Or people might run the dishwasher twice, wasting water and electricity. It was the phosphorus in detergents, after all, that allowed modern dishwashers to function well using smaller amounts of cooler water. In other words, the issue came down to trade-offs. Which environmental value matters most: reduction of energy consumption, conservation of water, or elimination of phosphorus?

Different people and different communities might well choose different trade-offs. And even if you did prioritize phosphorus reduction, no one knew for certain how much dishwasher detergent actually contributed to the problem. Advocates of the ban claimed—without hard evidence—that 15 percent to 20 percent of all the phosphorus entering Spokane’s water-treatment plant came from dishwashers. But a 2003 study done in Minnesota concluded that only 1.9 percent of the phosphorus there was the byproduct of household dish detergents.

To their credit, most of the folks pushing the detergent ban made clear that getting rid of phosphates in detergent wasn’t going to fix the problem. “Anything we can do is good,” said Jani Gilbert, a spokeswoman for the Department of Ecology, “but I also want people to understand it’s not going to solve the river’s problem.” Rick Eichstaedt, a lawyer representing the Sierra Club in talks with the state and the EPA, admitted that “from a Spokane River cleanup perspective, it’s not going to solve the problem, and in fact, it’s not the major source of the problem.”

Ormsby and Mielke were working on parallel tracks: Ormsby searching for Democratic support in the house for a statewide ban; Mielke looking for Republican support on the ground for a local ban. It was only a matter of time before the two men found each other. And when they did, the idea became a freight train.

Mielke, who served for five years in the state legislature before becoming a corporate lobbyist, was widely respected by Washington Republicans. When he joined forces with Ormsby, support for the phosphate ban took off in the house. It passed by a vote of 78 to 19 with such strong bipartisan support that both the speaker and the minority leader voted for it. The legislative strength of the bill surprised Lisa Brown, the Democratic majority leader in the state senate, who quickly became engaged. She knew a winner when she saw one. And it didn’t hurt that she, too, hailed from Spokane. With Brown muscling it along, the bill passed in the senate just two weeks later, 41 to 7.

Four weeks after that, on March 27, 2006, Governor Chris Gregoire signed the ban into law. The new law made it illegal to sell or distribute traditional dishwasher detergents in Spokane and two other counties beginning in 2008, and in the rest of Washington state beginning in 2010. At the signing ceremony, Gregoire acknowledged that the ban might seem like overkill to outsiders. “Some people think this is a minor issue,” she said, “unless you live in Spokane.”

Ormsby never realized that what might be good for Spokane and Washington state was about to become the rule for the whole country. “I didn’t imagine that it was going to catch on like this,” he says. “It was gratifying to see that it had national implications. But to be honest, I never imagined it would turn out this way.”

With the genie out of the bottle in Washington state, environmental activists in other states began lining up to pass their own bans. By 2010, 15 other states had passed bans, but that turned out to be mere environmental showmanship. Because before the ink was even dry on the Washington law, the detergent manufacturers quietly threw in the towel. Instead of manufacturing two sets of product—one for Washington state and another for the rest of America—the industry giants agreed among themselves to move to phosphate-free detergents nationwide by July 2010. “We recognize that the train has stopped. We can’t fight this anymore in the United States,” said Jan Wengler, the director of government affairs for Reckitt Benckiser, the company that makes Finish and Electrasol.

And so it came to pass. In 2008, there was a brief spasm of outrage when Spokane took up the ban. There were newspaper stories about Spokane housewives driving across the Idaho border to buy detergents that actually worked. The green lobby tried to calm the populace. Representative Ormsby assured the public that the new phosphate-free detergents worked just as well as the old ones. “I’m not an automatic-dishwasher owner,” he said, championing the new detergents. “I’m a handwasher, but I know from doing an unscientific poll among family members, they have no complaints.” He also explained that the ban helped demonstrate that Washingtonians had “an enlightened view of what goes down the drain.”

Jacob McCann, president of the pro-ban Washington Lake Protection Association, told the local papers that his group was having difficulty getting consumers to be more enlightened. He said that WLPA members had taken to stalking the aisles of grocery stores and pushing the new detergents face-to-face. “We try to talk to people in the soap aisle,” McCann said, “and give them a little push to try the phosphate-free detergents.”

Idaho’s Lewiston Morning Tribune ran the somber headline “Officials tout low-phosphate soap: Washington residents urged to make extra effort.” Confronted with widespread consumer complaints, the director of Washington’s Department of Ecology, Jay Manning, could only say, “We hear you.” The Morning Tribune went on:

The agency acknowledged that some people may be getting poor performance from phosphate-free detergents because Spokane water is very hard, thanks to lots of minerals that cause it to be resistant to soap. Residents were urged to make a little extra effort to benefit the environment. “While manufacturers are working to increase the quality and effectiveness of phosphate-free detergents on the market, we want to thank those Spokane-area residents who are complying with the new law and going the extra mile to protect the Spokane River from algae blooms and fish kills,” Manning said.

The forces of environmentalism didn’t flinch. “Probably, people will store up on the no-no detergents before they come off the shelves,” the Department of Ecology’s Jani Gilbert noted serenely. “That’s okay, because sometime soon they will run out [of the old detergents] and need to buy the detergents that protect the environment.”

Which is exactly what has been happening across the country since last July, when the last box of phosphate-full detergent was sold somewhere out in the great American heartland.

Some government-imposed bans are easier to get around than others. For instance, if you want a toilet with a 3.5 gallon flush tank, as opposed to the American-mandated 1.6 gallon tank, you can drive to a Canadian hardware store on your next vacation, or find a friend in the hardware salvage business. The government says that you can’t have a showerhead with more than 2.5 gallons per minute of flow—but you can pull the shower head’s restrictor valve or, if you’re creative, put multiple shower heads on the same water line. And before the government outlaws incandescent bulbs in a few years you’ll be able to stock at least a 10-year supply without much effort or trouble. But good home dishwasher detergent is now banished from all of North America. Unless you’re willing to conduct home chemistry experiments that involve titrating certain industrial-grade cleansers into your dishwasher soap, the experience of high-efficiency, low-labor, automated, hassle-free dishwashing is something you’ll be able to reminisce about with your grandkids as you scrape the plates before putting them into machines that don’t quite work they way they used to.

The ratchet will keep turning. The anti-phosphorus lobby began by agitating against phosphates in laundry detergent. In the early 1990s they were banned, though an exception was made for dish detergents. Now phosphates are banned in dish detergents, too, though these bans make an exception for commercial dish detergents, which still contain phosphates. Surely they are next in line for improvement. And after that? Last January the Washington state legislature took up a proposal to ban phosphates from residential lawn fertilizers. It passed in the senate, but stalled in the house. The bill, which would have required neighbors to inform on one another, was sponsored by the Democratic majority leader, Lisa Brown. We probably have not have heard the last of it.

Spokane places a particularly high value on phosphorus reduction and, as Governor Gregoire observed, the ban might make sense there. But benefits never come without costs. Aside from the very real costs in time and aggravation imposed on millions of Americans who must adapt their dishwashing techniques even in parts of the country without a phosphate runoff problem, there are  environmental costs to the ban. To people living in places where water is more scarce—say, Nevada or California—the ban might make less sense. Not that it matters anymore. We’re all living in Spokane now.

When it’s all tallied, Spokane County will have spent several hundred million dollars to remove about 150 pounds of phosphorus a day from the river. Sure, that money might have been spent on other public goods. But at least the voters there knew what the trade-offs were, and chose cleaner water and healthier fish over personal convenience. Or did they?

The ban itself, it turns out, has helped the river very little. A year after it went into effect, supporters conveniently forgot their promises of reductions in the 15 percent to 20 percent range and trumpeted news that phosphorus flowing into the city’s water-treatment plant had declined by 10.7 percent, to just 181 pounds per day. Buried in the accounts was a remark by the plant’s manager admitting that because the new phosphorus filtration system was so efficient, nearly all of the in-flowing phosphorus was getting filtered out anyway. So the reduction of phosphorus actually making it into the river as a result of the detergent ban is much, much smaller. Still, he chirped, “Any phosphorus reduction you can see there is going to have benefit to the river.”

That was the idea, anyway. Last month the University of Washington released a study suggesting that some of the phosphorus being discharged into the Spokane River never actually worked as fertilizer for algae to begin with. It seems that not all phosphorus is alike. Some of the effluents making their way into the river contained phosphorus in complex molecular forms which are not bioavailable. Algae lack the enzymes necessary to break down this phosphorus, meaning it is essentially harmless. The study was a useful reminder that all science is settled. Until it’s not.

For some of the people in Spokane this revelation may be welcome news. The Inland Empire Paper Company, for instance, which has spent millions fighting for its continued existence, contends that by the standards of bioavailability, only 9 percent of the phosphorus it releases helps algae grow. Perhaps the new study will spur the environmental bureaucracy to grant Inland Empire Paper a reprieve.

But for the rest of America, there’s no going back. So we might as well press forward and get to work. Those dishes aren’t going to clean themselves.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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