Citing advice from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ state transportation agency, fertilizer giant Mosaic wants to more than double the size of its controversial proposal to test radioactive phosphate manufacturing waste as an ingredient in road building, according to documents filed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
In March of last year, the Fortune 500 company asked the federal agency to take less than 500 tons of its phosphate byproduct, called phosphogypsum, and blend it into a test roadway at the company’s New Wales facility in Mulberry.
Now, at the request of the governor’s Florida Department of Transportation, Mosaic wants to raise that amount to 1,200 tons — roughly the weight of six 747 jets — and increase the length of the test road by 2,000 feet, according to a letter from Mosaic to the Environmental Protection Agency sent at the end of August.
The company’s revised proposal came less than two months after DeSantis signed a bill that will allow the state transportation department to study the waste as a test ingredient in road construction. Mosaic said the state has since “taken an interest” in their pilot project.
That bill was lobbied by Mosaic, which paid $25,000 in May for a fundraiser for the bill’s legislative sponsor at a Bowling Green golf getaway formerly owned by the company. That was after the company wrote a $200,000 check to the Republican Party of Florida in January, campaign finance records show. That month, the company was listed as a sponsor of DeSantis’ inauguration ceremony, a designation reserved for major donors and allies.
Mosaic has already met with the department, and the updated request to the federal government comes directly from the state agency’s own recommendations, company executive Patrick Kane told the federal government in the letter. A spokesperson for the state agency also confirmed meeting with Mosaic.
The company’s latest request on behalf of the Florida transportation agency has critics worried that the byproduct could hurt human and environmental health if allowed to be placed in roads across the state. Phosphogypsum contains radium-226, which emits radiation during its decay to form radon, a cancer-causing, radioactive gas, according to the federal environment regulators.
“They’re going to start poisoning people,” said Garrett Stuart, head of the nonprofit Eco Preservation Project. “This is going to affect every single corner of Florida if it’s allowed to take place.”
Over the last few months, Stuart has led prayer walks in South Florida against what he and other environmental activists have dubbed the “radioactive roads” bill signed by DeSantis. A prayer walk is an Indigenous ceremony to raise spiritual awareness for environmental issues. The next one is planned for later this month.
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“It’s a cry for help from our ancestors,” Stuart told the Tampa Bay Times. “This would poison my relatives, our animals, our plants.”
In its letter to the feds, Mosaic said it doesn’t need to reevaluate how these increased test parameters could pose a risk to human health because the test is similar to a 2019 proposal to federal environment regulators. The agency initially approved that plan until it was rolled back under the Biden administration.
To date, federal environment regulators have not approved other uses of the phosphate processing byproduct, according to the agency.
Mosaic defends the study
In a statement, Mosaic denied that the request to test new uses for its byproduct is driven by profits, as critics claim.
“The desire to find a beneficial reuse for phosphogypsum is based on the existing successes of other advanced countries,” said spokesperson Jackie Barron. “It’s not uncommon for our regulators to request some adjustments to expand or enhance the scope of the field of study.”
The federal environment agency said in July it was within months of a decision on Mosaic’s initial request, but this new change is sure to push that approval back by months at the least.
A spokesperson for the federal agency told the Times this week that it’s too soon to say when the agency will be ready with a decision.
“It can reasonably take about a year and a half given the need for significant technical information on any risk to the public or material user, for example,” spokesperson Shayla Powell wrote in an email. The amount of time for approval depends on the details of the project, and it’s not uncommon for the agency to ask petitioners for more information during the review, she said.
Mosaic says if the feds were to approve the company’s proposal, Florida’s transportation agency could determine phosphogypsum is safe to use in roads and the byproduct would be exempt from future state environmental regulation as a solid waste.
The company has said placing the waste in roads could be safer than storing it in gypstacks across the state. The Tampa Bay area is no stranger to the environmental risks tied to gypstacks: In 2021, roughly 215 million gallons of tainted water from the Piney Point fertilizer site was sent into the bay due to fears that a leak in a reservoir could trigger a massive flood, endangering homes and businesses.
The release of contaminants may have fueled an intense red tide and likely contributed to the bay’s declining seagrass.
Critics say placing the phosphogypsum in roads — and potentially placing human health at risk — isn’t a better alternative.
“The failing phosphogypsum stacks, housing billions of tons of toxic waste, are not going anywhere,” said Rachael Curran, a staff attorney at the Jacobs Public Interest Law Clinic for Democracy and the Environment at Stetson University College of Law.
Paving roads with the byproduct “is not a solution to the horrific phosphogypsum stack problem that the fertilizer industry has burdened us with,” Curran told the Times.
In its original proposal, Mosaic wanted to mix its mining byproduct with limerock, concrete and a sand cement over stretches of 300-foot sections. But at the request of the state transportation agency, the company wants to increase those sections to 500 feet, and do a new test by mixing phosphogypsum with asphalt.
Mosaic relied on Canada-based Arcadis Canada Inc. to outline the possible radiation risks of the project. In a review to the feds submitted in August, Arcadis leaned heavily on a past risk assessment completed during the 2019 proposal. If approved, Mosaic still plans to give personal gamma radiation detectors to construction workers building the road, records show.
Critics of the proposal think the company should be doing a more detailed look into the potential risks.
“Mosaic has again declined to provide a complete project-specific risk assessment that would inform the (Environmental Protection Agency) and the public of the environmental and health risks,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Whitlock said the bill signed by DeSantis in June “handed over the reins to industry without any measures to ensure the health and safety of Floridians and the environment.”