For Immediate Release, February 28, 2023
Ragan Whitlock, (727) 426-3653, firstname.lastname@example.org
Florida Legislature Considers Use of Radioactive Phosphogypsum in Road Construction
Road Workers, Florida Residents, Water Quality at Risk
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida Legislature introduced two bills today that would pave the way for the use of radioactive phosphogypsum in road construction.
House Bill 1191 and Senate Bill 1258 would authorize the Florida Department of Transportation to undertake “demonstration projects” using phosphogypsum in road construction while ordering a fast-tracked study on the suitability of the product as a construction material. The bills would also deregulate phosphogypsum as a solid waste under some circumstances.
Decades of science show that phosphogypsum poses a substantial risk to humans and the environment. An expert consultant for the Environmental Protection Agency found numerous scenarios that would expose the public — particularly road-construction workers — to a cancer risk the agency considers to be unacceptably dangerous.
The agency has also found that the use of phosphogypsum in roads may cause adverse effects to nearby surface and groundwater resources through leaching of trace metals and radionuclides. These toxins may also be resuspended into the air by wind and vehicular traffic.
“This would be an outrageous handout to the phosphate industry at the expense of the health and safety of Floridians and our environment,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If this bill becomes law, Florida roads would become ticking time bombs, waiting for the next storm event to expose our communities and waterways to this radioactive waste.”
Last September Hurricane Ian left a path of destruction across southwest Florida, demolishing roads and collapsing bridges along its path. The destruction highlighted the danger of proposals to use toxic, radioactive phosphogypsum waste in road construction, which could be unearthed and expose communities and the environment to harm. As climate change drives storms of increasing intensity, Florida faces escalating risks of similar destruction in the future.
The EPA has long prohibited use of phosphogypsum in roads because it contains uranium and radium that produce radionuclides linked to higher risks of cancer and genetic damage. But for several years, the fertilizer industry has pushed lawmakers to allow it.
The bills would also require a study to evaluate the “suitability” of phosphate in roads, but the study and determination must be completed by Jan. 1, 2024.
“There’s already overwhelming evidence that it’s too risky to use phosphogypsum in roads,” said Whitlock, “But the incredibly short timeline set for the Department of Transportation’s ‘study’ is telling. If these lawmakers cared at all about the health and safety of Floridians and the environment, they wouldn’t rush a study that has such obvious, far-reaching health and safety implications.”
Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid, which is predominantly used in fertilizer. Radium-226, found in phosphogypsum, has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life. In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and process wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.
Phosphogypsum is currently stored in mountainous stacks called “gypstacks” hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. More than 1 billion tons of the radioactive waste have already been stored in 25 stacks scattered throughout Florida, perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer that supplies drinking water to 10 million people.
In 1992 the EPA determined that the use of phosphogypsum in road construction presents an unacceptable risk to public health. Since then it has required that phosphogypsum be stored in stacks because the radon it emits can cause serious harm to health, including cancer, genetic damage and birth deformities.
In 2020, under the Trump administration, the EPA reversed its own longstanding policy, approving the use of phosphogypsum in roads. Following a lawsuit and petition by the Center and other environmental, public health and union groups, in 2021 the agency withdrew its approval for use of phosphogypsum in roads.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.