Bubble Bandits Defy Dishwashing Soap Ban

Spokane County, Washington, became the first place in the country to ban the sale of high-phosphate dishwasher soap — which includes most popular brands. And that's meant a boom in trafficking of "illegal" diswasher soap from nearby Idaho.

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DAVID GREENE, host:

Let's go now to Spokane, Washington, where there's been a boom in the trafficking of an unlikely substance over the last year. It's an organized trade with highly coordinated schedules and a whole network of dealers, and much of it is family-related.

Vanessa Romo has our story.

VANESSA ROMO: Pat Dalton is on the precipice of becoming an interstate bootlegger. She's got a full tank of gas in her 2004 Chevy Minivan, and she's draped in black from head to toe, just like a cat burglar or a ninja.

(Soundbite of banging sound)

ROMO: The mission is simple: drive 29 miles from Spokane to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, pick up the stash and head straight home. She's not nervous or remorseful. In fact, she seems gleeful.

Ms. PAT DALTON: I'm a smuggler.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DALTON: I'm a bubble bandit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROMO: That's right. Pat, a 54-year-old churchgoing mother of three, is a soap smuggler. Almost a year ago, Spokane County became the first place in the country to enforce the strictest ban on high-phosphate dishwasher soap, which pretty much means all of the most popular brands in America. It's supposed to reduce phosphorus pollution in local streams and rivers. So that means no more Electrasol PowerBall Tabs and out with new Cascade liquid gels. Now, only eco-friendly products with less than a half percent phosphates are sold within county lines. Pat Dalton said at first, she was totally on board.

Ms. DALTON: You know, because I wanted to take care of our water. But then as soon as I had to use the soap, I went, this is no good.

ROMO: Actually, Consumer Reports did rate some of these eco-products well. Still, Pat's not impressed, and she's not alone. Just ask the good people at Rosauers, a local grocery store.

Ms. SANDY FRANKS(ph): It just doesn't clean as well. It doesn't take out the stains.

Mr. FRED SPRINGER(ph): The new soap stains the dishes.

Ms. JESSIE CRAMER(ph): Nothing got clean.

Mr. SPRINGER: Well, there's spots on there after it goes through the heat cycle.

ROMO: Okay. So these humans - Sandy Franks, Fred Springer and Jessie Cramer, may not be fans of the new soap, but the fish living in Spokane County presumably are.

Mr. TOM BRADAVILLE(ph) (Activist): If you want the fish to survive, you need to have a certain amount of oxygen.

ROMO: Tom Bradaville led the crusade for the legislation. He's a grey-haired, serious man who doesn't find anything cute or funny about the so-called soap smugglers. Hands stuffed deep into his pockets just a few feet away from Spokane Falls, he explains how low-phosphorus soap helps fish life.

Mr. BRADAVILLE: Phosphorus has caused tremendous algae growths in some of the lakes which, when the allergy dies, it decomposes, consuming the oxygen.

ROMO: And killing the fish. It's still early, but Bradaville claims that eco-friendly soap has reduced phosphorus levels in the nearby water plant by 14 percent. He looks out onto the thunderous and gushing river and shakes his head. He'd rather believe that there are more people like him concerned about the fish than Pat Dalton, who has finally found her way to a Safeway in Idaho.

Ms. DALTON: Bubble bandits come through here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROMO: She's got the goods in hand: a box of lemon-scent Cascade with extra shine.

Unidentified Woman: Hi, there.

Ms. DALTON: Hi. How are you doing today?

ROMO: The transaction is quick and totally uneventful. So other than the drive and maybe a guilty conscience, what is there to stop people like Pat? It turns out, not much. Here's Officer Suzanne Mann of the Spokane PD.

Officer SUZANNE MANN (Spokane Police Department): I don't have the ability to enforce it. It's not a criminal act. It's a civil act.

ROMO: But even if she could, would she enforce it? Probably not, based on how her dishes have been turning out.

Ms. MANN: Personally, they look like crap.

ROMO: And while as an officer of the law, she won't admit to buying contraband for herself, she does admit to trafficking the stuff.

Ms. MANN: I pick it up from my daughter and my mom.

ROMO: Ultimately though, all of the driving back and forth and the surreptitious trading of high-phosphate detergents will likely come to an end by July of 2010. That's when a number of other states will enact similar legislation. There's even a bill on Capitol Hill that would impose a nationwide ban, which is why the pressure is on for soap manufacturers. The Soap and Detergent Association, which initially fought bans, have now embraced the greener guidelines.

The Washington ban just came too soon, it says. But the industry will be ready for 2010. In the meantime, the river of contraband soap will continue to flow into Spokane County, one minivan load at a time.

For NPR News, I'm Vanessa Romo.

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