EPA approves use of radioactive phosphogypsum in roads, reversing long-held policy

Supported by the fertilizer industry, the change holds major ramifications for Florida
An aerial view is shown of a gypsum stack (top) at a Mosaic plant in Mulberry.
An aerial view is shown of a gypsum stack (top) at a Mosaic plant in Mulberry. [ Times (2016) ]
Published Oct. 14, 2020|Updated Oct. 14, 2020

Reversing a strict, decades-old policy, the Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced it will allow limited use of a radioactive byproduct of phosphate mining to build roads.

Supported by the fertilizer industry, the change holds major ramifications for Florida, at the core of America’s phosphate production. A billion tons of the solid substance, phosphogypsum, sits piled in high mounds called stacks, including several around greater Tampa Bay.

“The approval of this request means that phosphogypsum, which already requires significant engineering and regulatory controls to be disposed of in stacks, can now be put to productive use rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure,” said the agency’s administrator, Andrew Wheeler, citing a “commitment to working with industry in a way that both reduces environmental waste and protects public health."

Environmental advocates were distressed by the shift, saying federal regulators are prioritizing business interests over safety.

“It’s unconscionable that the EPA would approve the use of radioactive hazardous waste in our roads,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida political director for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund. She expressed worry that phosphate mining companies would add another special-interest voice to boost road development projects across the state.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on using phosphogypsum date to 1989. Phosphate mining, a leading industry in Central Florida, involves pulling up rocks that hold uranium and radium. Phosphogypsum is a waste product formed when an acid solution is used to separate out the part of the rocks valuable for making fertilizer. It contains more concentrated radioactivity, so federal regulators have required miners to dispose of it in the heavily-monitored stacks. The initial approach on road building was rooted in concerns about an abandoned street breaking down overtime, and risking the health of people who built homes on top of the material.

The new analysis behind the EPA’s decision suggested it will only make financial sense to transport the substance within 200 miles of a stack, meaning the change could especially touch road projects around Tampa Bay. The report indicates it will allow reuse of phosphogypsum at radioactivity levels similar to what is found in the stacks around Central Florida.

The state is home to about two dozen stacks, according to the Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute. Housed at Florida Polytechnic University, the Institute has been working on a product using phosphogypsum to make road bases.

“We’re like the only country around the world that doesn’t use the phosphogypsum,” said Jim Mennie, the Institute’s business director. He said the material might support stronger roads than more common resources like limestone.

Of the radiation, he said, “it’s low-level.”

“It’s not in people’s homes or in people’s backyards,” Mennie said. “It’s going to be mixed with other items in road construction.” Stacks of phosphogypsum carry their own environmental concerns, he added, including ponds of acidic water that sit atop the heaps.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

The Environmental Protection Agency, in making its determination, said reusing the substance for roads is no riskier than a stack.

In a report with the announcement Wednesday, Wheeler noted that officials still have concerns about the potential long-term harm of phosphogypsum in roadways, but they believe it can be mitigated with effective regulation. Recommended conditions include restricting the levels of radioactivity, notifying the public when phosphogypsum is used in a project and requiring “continued control, maintenance and use of the road.”

An industry group, the Fertilizer Institute, petitioned the government to change the policy on using phosphogypsum in roads. The Environmental Protection Agency reviewed risk analyses conducted by the Fertilizer Institute to make its decision. The group describes itself as “the voice of the fertilizer industry.”

“This decision strengthens the industry’s sustainability efforts and long term environmental stewardship,” said the organization’s president and CEO, Corey Rosenbusch, in a joint statement with the Environmental Protection Agency.

Mosaic, a Tampa-based Fortune 500 mining company and local industry giant, backed the decision. Reusing phosphogypsum could reduce the burden of maintaining stacks for mining companies. Five years ago, Mosaic agreed to a $2 billion settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency over how it handled hazardous waste.

Company spokeswoman Jackie Barron, in a statement that echoed the Fertilizer Institute, said: “This decision strengthens our industry’s sustainability efforts by creating value for a material that previously sat stacked and puts to better use the land currently allocated for that stacking.”

Glenn Compton, chair of ManaSota-88, Inc., a local environmental advocacy group, said he worries the government will now explore allowing phosphogypsum for other uses.

“The alternative use of phosphogypsum in roadbeds is one of the most reckless things I’ve seen the EPA do in recent years,” he said. “I see this as Pandora’s box. It’s going to open up a regulatory door.”