A Senate committee today put off until next year a vote on a proposed ban on household detergents that contain phospates, an action that the bill's sponsor, Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), termed "an absolutely gutless stand."
The bill would have placed Virginia in line with Maryland and the District, which have prohibited the sale of cleansers with phosphates as part of an effort to clean up rivers that feed into the Chesapeake Bay.
"I thought they'd have the guts to face up to it," an enraged Gartlan said after the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 10 to 5 to study the idea for another year.
Sen. John W. Russell (R-Fairfax), who proposed the delay, said that if Gartlan is unhappy, "we can go back and vote it down."
Committee Chairman Stanley C. Walker (D-Norfolk), who voted for the delay, responded that "the bill was going down. We gave it a chance to stay alive. It also will give him Gartlan a whole year to grandstand."
Among reasons Walker cited for postponement was that the ban "does not have the full support of the administration."
Chris Bridge, press spokeswoman for Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, confirmed that the governor had "no position" on the measure. She said "his concerns" about clean water "go beyond phosphates."
Sen. Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington), a proponent of the ban, said "the absence of hard support" from the state Water Quality Control Board hurt its chances. Al Pollock of the state board said the agency was not asked for a recommendation.
But Pollock testified that a task force commissioned by the 1984 General Assembly, which included representatives of the board, the Soil and Water Conservation Division, Co-operative Extension Service and the Chesapeake Bay Commission, reported that such a ban would reduce phosphate discharges from municipal treatment plants by 25 percent.
If the ban were to go into effect this year, even without further action such as upgrading the treatment plants, it would reduce phosphates in the rivers to the point where it would take 12 years for them to return to their current level, he said.
An opponent, lobbyist John H. Rust Jr., speaking for the national Soap and Detergent Association, said a 1985 study in North Carolina found that 90 percent of consumers preferred phosphate detergents "because they clean better." Rust said detergents without phosphates "leave deposits in washing machines and on clothes," and said manufacturers' instructions warn that using nonphosphate detergents "may impair operation" of washing machines.
Gartlan fired back that the February issue of Consumer Reports magazine found that none of the top three laundry detergents, rated for overall quality, contained phosphates. The number one seller, Tide with phosphates, ranked fourth in overall quality, he said.
Gartlan noted that supporters of the ban include Giant Foods, the chambers of commerce of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax, and various environmental groups.
Rust, a former Fairfax legislator, also suggested it was unfair to ban phosphates only in detergents. He said 92 percent of phosphates are used in fertilizers, 6 percent in other household or food products, and only 2 percent in cleansers.