ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— The Biden administration announced it is withdrawing approval given by the Trump administration to use phosphogypsum in construction. The retracted approval had allowed the use of toxic, radioactive waste in constructing roads in parts of the United States prone to sinkholes and erosion.
“Allowing phosphogypsum in roads was a boneheaded, short-sighted favor to the industry,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “While the withdrawal cites technical deficiencies in the applicant’s petition, this action is consistent with 30 years of science showing that phosphogypsum poses a substantial risk to humans and the environment.”
In December 2020 environmental, public health and union groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued the Environmental Protection Agency for approving phosphogypsum use in roads. The groups also petitioned the agency to reconsider its approval.
Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste of fertilizer production. Phosphate ore, mined largely in Florida, is transported to fertilizer plants for processing by chemically digesting the ore in sulfuric acid. For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates five tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste.
Since 1989 the EPA has required phosphogypsum to be stored in mountainous piles called “stacks,” and limited the amount of radon gas that can be emitted from the stacks. If dispersed, the material would present an unreasonable public health threat stemming from the appreciable quantities of radium-226, uranium, uranium-238, uranium-234, thorium-230, radon-222, lead-210, polonium-210, chromium, arsenic, lead, cadmium, fluoride, zinc, antimony and copper phosphogypsum contains.
In approving phosphogypsum use in roads, the agency ignored its own expert consultant, who found numerous scenarios that would expose the public — particularly road-construction workers — to a cancer risk the agency considers to be unacceptably dangerous.
The approval would have permitted phosphogypsum to be used in roads within 200 miles of phosphogypsum storage stacks, most of which are in Florida. It would have affected hundreds of protected plants and animals and their critical habitat.
“Phosphate companies should not be allowed to carelessly spread their waste around by mixing it into roads,” said Glenn Compton, chair at ManaSota-88.
“It is the height irresponsibility for any industry to needlessly expose the public and the environment to otherwise avoidable radiation and hazardous waste.”
Florida has 1 billion tons of radioactive phosphogypsum in 25 stacks, including the Piney Point and New Wales gypstacks. The disastrous Piney Point phosphogypsum stack recently discharged more than 200 million gallons of wastewater into Tampa Bay, where there is now a red tide bloom.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has drafted a permit approving an expansion of the New Wales stack by 230 acres.
The fertilizer industry adds approximately 30 million tons of phosphogypsum waste each year. The majority of the stacks are in Florida, but they can also be found in Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming.
“This is great news at a time when we could all use some,” said Brooks Armstrong, president at People for Protecting Peace River. “We will continue in our effort to make known the dangers of phosphogypsum and its continued production.”
"This proposal to utilize radioactive materials in roads throughout Gulf communities was just another insult to folks already overburdened with pollution," said Matt Rota, senior policy director of Healthy Gulf. "We are glad to see this decision to not use radioactive phosphogypsum in local roads and hope that this is a step toward systematically addressing the myriad impacts of phosphate mining and production in the Gulf States."
“The EPA recognizes that at minimum the prior administration erred in its approval by not following its own rules regarding required information, and that there is no implicit sequencing toward approval based on an applicant’s request,” said Craig Diamond, vice chair of the Sierra Club Florida chapter executive committee. “Further, the EPA affirmed it has authority to pre-approve only select applications of phosphogypsum and road construction is not among those. The Sierra Club is grateful that the federal agency charged with protecting the environment and our health is once again taking the job seriously.”