In reversal, EPA won’t allow radioactive fertilizer byproduct in roads

Last year the fertilizer industry won approval to use the byproduct. But now the Environmental Protection Agency is under new management.
An aerial view shows a phosphogypsum stack run by Mosaic in Bartow in June.
An aerial view shows a phosphogypsum stack run by Mosaic in Bartow in June. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 3, 2021|Updated Aug. 5, 2021

The Environmental Protection Agency will not allow a radioactive byproduct of the fertilizer industry to be used to build roads — rolling back a controversial decision it made last year.

In October, at the request of an industry group, it changed a decades-old policy to allow limited recycling of phosphogypsum, a waste product stored in piles called stacks around Florida. Now the agency says the Fertilizer Institute’s application was missing important information.

“The request generally described the type of road construction that might be undertaken but identified no actual road construction projects and gave little specific, particularized information about the proposed use,” read a June letter signed by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan.

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

The agency acknowledged initially that the application was incomplete, Regan said, but it determined missing details could come at a later time. The government no longer agrees with its previous stance.

Since last year, Washington has undergone a change in administrations from former President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden, who installed his own leadership team at the Environmental Protection Agency and has sought to undo several of his predecessor’s environmental policies.

In between the approval and withdrawal, the government did not receive any applications to use phosphogypsum in specific road projects, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson said.

Some nature advocates challenged the original decision. They consider the reversal, announced in the administrator’s June 30 letter, a victory. Regan did not render judgement on whether recycling phosphogypsum in road materials is safe.

“However it is that the EPA came about its decision, ... we as the community that lives near stacks appreciate that this is no longer a threat that is looming over our communities at this time,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Related: Environmentalists sue over plan to allow radioactive phosphogypsum in roads

The Fertilizer Institute called the shift “disappointing” but said the reversal on procedural grounds does not mean the agency is against using phosphogypsum to help make roads.

“In fact, the decision to withdraw the categorical approval ... definitively left the window open for site specific projects to be considered for EPA approval,” said a statement from spokesperson Kathy Mathers.

Phosphogypsum is a leftover from the process of breaking down phosphate rock to make an ingredient in fertilizer. For decades, the government has required companies to keep almost all of the material in stacks, which can rise hundreds of feet and cover several hundred acres, and to monitor them because phosphogypsum is radioactive. Industry leaders say the radioactivity levels are minimal, and that operators in countries like Canada and Finland are looking to deploy phosphogypsum as an additive to soil or in other infrastructure projects.

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Florida is home to about two dozen gypsum stacks, including several in and around Tampa Bay. This spring, a leaking wastewater pond at an old stack in Manatee County caused an emergency. Officials feared the reservoir would collapse, unleashing hundreds of millions of gallons of polluted water into neighborhoods.

That did not happen, but the state allowed the site’s owner, HRK Holdings, to pump 215 million gallons of polluted water into Tampa Bay. Extra nitrogen from that release could be helping to fuel a devastating Red Tide bloom this summer, scientists have said. The environmental crisis has seen more than 1,700 tons of dead sea life and debris wash up around Pinellas County.

Related: Failure at Piney Point: Florida let environmental risk fester despite warnings

Many gypsum stacks in Florida are run by the Fortune 500 mining corporation Mosaic, which echoed The Fertilizer Institute’s position in a statement calling the government’s reversal “disappointing.”

“Mosaic stands committed in its work to find a sustainable, beneficial use for gypsum,” said company spokesperson Jackie Barron. “Our goal of finding a more environmentally sound practice than storage in above-ground stacks remains a top priority.”

Critics similarly do not like the idea of piling phosphogypsum forever and argue companies like Mosaic need to stop producing it altogether.

“This is really an industry problem that needs to have an industry solution,” said Glenn Compton, chair of the local environmental group ManaSota-88.

The Environmental Protection Agency letter does not block future requests for recycling phosphogypsum outside of stacks, including to build roads, if those requests follow proper procedure by including the exact location where the materials will go and how much will be used.

The Fertilizer Institute said it will continue working with the agency to find ways to recycle phosphogypsum.