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The dirty truth: They're smuggling soap in Spokane

Spokane County's limits on the sales of phosphates in dishwasher detergent has slowed the flood of pollutants into the Spokane River -- but sped the flood of shoppers into Idaho to get the strong soap.

April 06, 2009|Kim Murphy

SPOKANE, WASH. — By day, Patti Marcotte is a working mom -- dealing with the balancing act created by a 5-year-old daughter, a demanding job, a split-level house and a willful boxer puppy.

Come the post-dinner hour, however, Marcotte begins operating in the shadowy world of smuggled soap.

Spokane County in July adopted a near total ban on sales of water-softening phosphates in dishwasher detergent -- the first in the nation -- in an attempt to slow the flood of pollutants that is sucking oxygen out of the endangered Spokane River, smothering its fish.

The problem, Marcotte and many of her neighbors say, is that most low-phosphate detergents are wimps when it comes to fighting greasy pots and spaghetti-crusted plates. So she has become a detergent outlaw, driving 45 minutes across the Idaho state line to pick up secret stashes of the old, bad dish cleansers: the brutish Cascades, the muscular Electrasols.

"With the 'green' stuff, the dishes come out with a real slippery texture -- like somebody poured a cup of grease in some dishwater -- and a white film. Just really gross," Marcotte said. "And then the food gunk just mixes around the dishwasher and when it stops, it just settles on whatever's there. I mean, it's bad."

Retailers in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, say the sight of apologetic but defiant Washingtonians loading their carts with dishwasher detergent is becoming increasingly common. "We go, 'Are you coming from Spokane?' And they kind of chuckle and say, 'Yeah,' " said Donna Wilkinson, an assistant manager at Costco.

For those inclined to chuckle at the travails of distant, desperate people with dirty dishes, consider this: The detergent industry has pledged to make every automatic dishwashing soap sold in the U.S. and Canada nearly phosphate-free by mid-2010.

With 12 states -- including Washington -- phasing in low-phosphate laws by the end of next year and four others considering them, industry officials say they are gearing up to produce a new generation of products that will clean dishes while not harming lakes and streams. (The California Legislature passed a phosphate law last year, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.)

The pledge marks a significant turnaround for an industry that until recently not only opposed such laws but also warned that many phosphate-free dishwashing detergents didn't work the way consumers expected them to.

But plenty soon will be available, said Dennis Griesing, vice president of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Soap and Detergent Assn.

"We sort of warned Spokane that things wouldn't be ready by 2008. We had told people it's not enough time to get our best products out there," Griesing said. "We have to do the R&D, restructure our chemical supply lines, maybe build some new plants.

"This is going to be a national changeover. I can't emphasize this enough."

Two major manufacturers have introduced nearly phosphate-free gels that work well in most water conditions, he said, and more are on the way.

At least some consumers in Spokane seem willing to give it a try.

"I'm not an automatic-dishwasher owner, I'm a hand washer, but I know from doing an unscientific poll among family members, they have no complaints," said state Rep. Timm Ormsby, a Democrat from Spokane who helped shepherd Washington's statewide ban -- which takes effect in July 2010 -- through the Legislature.

The transition echoes the elimination of most phosphates from laundry detergent several years ago, but represents an entirely different technological hurdle. Previous attempts to phase out dishwasher phosphates in Europe and a brief trial in Arizona met with implacable consumer resistance.

But Spokane County authorities say that since the law went into effect, they have reduced phosphate pollution from the county's main wastewater treatment plant by 14%.

Scientists say phosphorus -- a nutrient that is an essential component of living cells, as abundant in human waste and yard fertilizer as it is in detergent -- is one of the biggest threats to lakes and rivers whose waters take in a constant stream of phosphate-laden wastewater discharges, agricultural runoff and storm-water flows.

Acting as a fertilizer in the water, phosphates promote the uncontrolled growth of often-toxic algae blooms that, when they die back, nurture bacteria. That bacteria rapidly consume much of the oxygen in the water, leaving little for plants and fish.

The Spokane River is considered one of the nation's most endangered, threatened by mining pollution, sewage treatment plant outfalls and heavy drawdowns of river water that tend to concentrate pollutants.

In an attempt to turn things around, the state Department of Ecology imposed what appear to be the lowest phosphate limits in the nation on Spokane's main water-reclamation plant. And the county instituted its dishwasher detergent rules two years before the statewide low-phosphate law takes effect.

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