by Joel Smith & r & About 30 people have spread out among a couple hundred chairs in the well-lit, yawning auditorium at CenterPlace, in the Valley's Mirabeau Point facility. Most of them are tucked away, Spokane-style, inside layers of denim and cotton and Gore-Tex -- boots on their feet, ball caps on their heads. Outside the big windows, it's cold and white.

But then there are four men sitting in the front row, a few chairs down from Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke and Spokane Valley City Councilman Dick Denenny. These guys are well-dressed, in sharp shirts and tailored slacks and business-professional shoes. They're all sitting together, all looking around with expressions that seem to mix suspicion with jet lag.

It's immediately apparent that those are the guys from Washington, D.C., the guys from the Soap and Detergent Association (SDA), who made the news with their presentation at the previous town hall meeting the night before. They were invited by Mielke and the county to give their two cents on the county's proposed ban on the residential use of automatic dishwasher detergents that include phosphate, a natural mineral that cleans plates pretty well but also contributes to an overload of phosphorus when it reaches the Spokane River. Phosphorus eats up oxygen in the river and upsets the ecosystem. State regulators have been alarmed for a while about the Spokane River, and now those regulators are saying Spokane County must take action to turn the situation around.

The proposal under discussion, spearheaded by Mielke, is one small tine in a fork of an effort being undertaken by environmental groups, wastewater dischargers and government entities in Washington and Idaho to cut the flow of phosphorus into the river from wastewater treatment and industrial plants by 90 percent over the next 20 years. Both the dischargers and the Sierra Club released plans for such a cleanup late last month.

At the meeting last Thursday, Mielke explained that a ban on the use of products with phosphate (or "P," in industry slang) is not expected to put a huge dent in the 200 pounds of phosphorus dumped directly into the river each day, but it might give the county "the most bang for its buck." Getting down to between 20 and 30 pounds, he says, will cost the county around $750,000 a pound. Getting from there down to the goal of about five pounds per day, on the other hand, will cost $27 million a pound. And although there's plenty of disagreement over just how much of a phosphorus dump would be prevented by the ban, and although switching to nil-P products might cost consumers a little more, this is low-hanging fruit, Mielke suggests.

But the soap guys disagree. After presentations by the Sierra Club's Tim Connor and other ban advocates, each of the four well-dressed men gets up to explain to Spokane why banning detergents with phosphates is such a bad idea that they felt compelled to fly more than 2,000 miles to tell us about it.

Dennis Greising, the SDA vice president for government affairs: Contrary to claims made by Connor's PowerPoint presentation, he says, phosphorus actually plays a very important role in protecting and maintaining automatic dishwashers. "It's not benign," he says. It conditions the water, helps create the proper pH levels and cleans the machine. And while the levels of phosphorus in automatic dishwashing detergents (ADDs) have decreased by about a third over the last 20 years, the demand for and use of dishwashers has risen steadily. Banning phosphates in Spokane County, thus, could get in the way of the people's right to a functional dishwasher.

Pat Hayes, with Procter & amp; Gamble: The industry can't develop a phosphorus-free product that consumers find acceptable, he says. "If it were as simple and straightforward as it is portrayed," he says, "believe me, we would be selling the product." He cites two experiments his company conducted in the 1990s to test consumers' taste for non-phosphorus dish soaps -- one in Europe, which was leaning heavily toward eco-friendly products at the time; and one in Arizona. In both cases, consumers were dissatisfied with the products. In the latter case, he says, complaints increased six-fold and consumers found themselves making long drives to get their old, P-heavy soaps back.

Despite the assertions made earlier in the evening by Amrit Khalsa, a sales manager for Earth-Friendly Products in Portland, and despite a favorable assessment in the March 2005 issue of Consumer Reports, non-phosphorus products, Hayes says, simply don't clean as well as P-products. And because they don't clean as well, it's necessary to pre-rinse, double-dose and increase water use, all of which have a harmful impact on the environment.

It goes on and on. Another rep from Procter & amp; Gamble stresses his company's commitment to the environment (it's true that P & amp;G has scored consistently high marks for eco-friendliness and sustainability) but insists that a ban on phosphorus wouldn't result in any kind of savings for Spokane County -- financially, environmentally or otherwise. Another, with the commercial cleaning and sanitizing company Ecolab, says that because phosphates are necessary for sanitization, a ban on products that use them could result in a public health risk.

By the time they wrap up and Commissioner Mielke opens the floor for questions, you'd think that banning phosphates was tantamount to outlawing hugs.

Rachael Paschal Osborn, an attorney with the Sierra Club and an adjunct professor of law at Gonzaga, thinks the SDA's whole premise is wrong. They can only convince people that consumers won't support nil-P products and that a ban on P-products would cost money, water and energy, she says, if nil-P products can't clean dishes.

"I've been using Seventh Generation [in my dishwasher] for a couple years now," she says, "and it cleans my dishes. So I don't understand what they're talking about." Referring to claims made during the SDA's presentation that nil-P detergents can't handle tougher food stains, she adds, "I don't put pans with burnt lasagna on them in my dishwasher. The idea that you should be able to put anything in your dishwasher and it should come out sparkling clean is just unreasonable."

Osborn suspects the SDA reps may not have had the Spokane area's best interests in mind. She thinks they're trying to do what they've done to every other community's attempt at a ban on phosphate dish soap -- squash it. While there are other jurisdictions that have passed restrictions on P-products, none has passed a total ban. "We would be the first," says Osborn. "That's pretty exciting for Spokane."

Todd Mielke says these SDA representatives were in town for only a few days, attending the town hall meetings and conferring with the county, but that there have been other representatives in the area for the last two months monitoring the situation. He says the four were invited to speak at last week's meetings because "we wanted to make sure we weren't censoring the data... We wanted people to be able to ask [them] the tough questions."

Mielke sounds fairly happy with the exchange of ideas at the meetings, but points out that the dish soap representatives didn't really take into account Spokane County's particular situation. He says too much attention was paid to the role of homes with sewer hook-ups, and too little was paid to the 10,000 septic tanks in Spokane County and 10,000 more in Kootenai County. "I told those guys, 'We're looking at more than 20,000 septic systems over the aquifer with no level of treatment for phosphorus,'" he says. "And they just go, 'Wow.'"

Where this discussion leads next is somewhat unclear. Mielke says that the Sierra Club and the dischargers group are now in "stand-down mode" after presenting their respective plans to the Washington Department of Ecology on Nov. 23. The DOE will look at both plans and is expected to get back to the groups with recommendations and suggestions later this month. He says he doesn't know if Ecology will take action itself or hand the plans over to be implemented by local agencies.

There are a number of ways in which a phosphorus ban could be implemented. The Spokane Regional Health District could take enforcement action, as it did with a ban on phosphates in laundry detergent in 1989. But it would need to make the case that the phosphorus poses a clear public health threat. In 1989, toxic algae blooms in Long Lake made that case a slam-dunk. There are still algae blooms in the lake today, but they're not toxic, so this is less likely.

The ban could also be adopted by local jurisdictions. Were the county to pass an ordinance, the ban would only cover unincorporated areas. Local municipalities like Spokane, Spokane Valley, Liberty Lake, etc., would need to pass their own ordinances (and Mielke stresses here the need for a degree of uniformity between jurisdictions, to make it easier on local retailers and prevent some kind of nefarious underground phosphate-smuggling ring).

The ban could also be adopted by the state Legislature. A proposal for it to do so was filed during the last legislative session and will be refiled in the upcoming one. Such a ban could apply to the entire state or to specific jurisdictions and could include any number of additional criteria -- phosphates could be banned within 500 feet of a body of water, or in areas over sole-source aquifers, etc.

Whatever the case, Mielke thinks this will take time. He says there are two things the soap industry noted that made him think. First, any time you put product restrictions in place, you need to give retailers time to work through their existing inventory. Second, the existing manufacturers of nil-P detergents are pretty small-scale. He's unsure whether companies like Seventh Generation and Ecover would be able to step up production and meet the area's demands on a short timeline.

Still, he sounds confident about the river cleanup plans currently on the table. Referring to the government-set limits on phosphorus and dissolved oxygen in the river, he says, sounding like a chipper car salesman, "Give us the most stringent [one] you've issued in the United States, and we'll meet it or beat it."

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