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FL Approves Radioactive Road Materials

Friday, July 14, 2023

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has reportedly signed a bill potentially allowing roads across Florida to be made using “radioactive” mining waste known as phosphogypsum. According to reports, the material is what remains after phosphate is mined and contains small amounts of uranium and radium.

The bill, referred to as HB 1191, reportedly compels the Florida Department of Transportation to conduct "demonstration projects using phosphogypsum in road construction aggregate material to determine its feasibility as a paving material."

About the Bill

The new measure will add phosphogypsum to a list of recyclables including ground rubber from car tires, ash residue from coal combustion, recycled mixed-plastic, glass and construction steel. Officials have stated that these materials were determined to be "part of the solid waste stream and that contribute to problems of declining space in landfills."

The law looks to make way for phosphogypsum to be used alongside other pavement aggregates such as crushed stone, gravel, sand and more. According to reports, industrial byproducts and reclaimed materials have also been used as aggregates in recent years. 

Before full implementation, FDOT will need to conduct a study to evaluate the suitability of the substance’s applications. The task has a deadline for April 1, 2024, at which time FDOT will have to complete their study and make their full recommendation.

According to reports, over 20 conservational groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, had urged DeSantis to veto the bill.

"By signing off on this reckless handout to the fertilizer industry, Gov. DeSantis is paving the way to a toxic legacy generations of Floridians will have to grapple with," said Elise Bennett, Florida and Caribbean director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement sent to NPR.

The bill was signed into law by DeSantis several days after it was received and was approved by a wide margin in the Florida Legislature.

During the Trump Administration, a ruling against phosphogypsum was rescinded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, beginning in October 2020 before being reinstated shortly after in June 2021. 

The EPA has stated that they will hold a public comment period, release their own technical analysis and seek input about the proposal, after Florida has applied for approval of its new plan. 

Additionally, an analysis from the Fertilizer Institute states that phosphogypsum in road construction would reportedly not produce radioactive doses above the EPA’s acceptable risks. The construction, they stated, "can be done safely and results in doses that are a small fraction of those arising from natural background radiation."

Researchers in China have also reportedly shown optimism regarding the use of the material, though also adding that more tests would be needed to study its durability and long-term effects on soil and water sources.

About Phosphogypsum

According to a report from CBS News, phosphogypsum contains decaying remains of elements that can eventually produce radon, a gas that is the second-leading cause of lung cancer. Radon is reportedly linked with over 21,000 deaths from lung cancer each year.

Additionally, the EPA states that radon is the “single greatest environmental source of radiation exposure.” Because of the risk, phosphogypsum is federally required to be stored in gypstack systems instead of landfills, to prevent it from encountering people or the environment.

Now, Florida reportedly has over 1 billion tons of phosphogypsum in 25 gypstacks, many of which have experienced leaks, sinkholes and other issues throughout their lifespans. According to reports, gypstacks can be up to 800 acres in size and span about 200 feet in total height and have been linked to water pollution in the past. 

Due to the threat of phosphogypsum, the EPA has banned its use in projects for decades, though permitting it for agricultural and indoor research with restrictions. The substance can also reportedly be approved for specific uses if the project “is at least as protective of human health as placement in a stack.”

According to a statement from the EPA, the passing of legislation HB 1191 will not affect the regulation of phosphogypsum.

“Any request for a specific use of phosphogypsum in roads will need to be submitted to EPA,” the spokesperson said to CBS News, “as EPA's approval is legally required before the material can be used in road construction.”

Florida has reportedly had previous issues with the material, seeing controversy over Piney Point, a former phosphate mining facility in the Gulf Coast’s Manatee County. According to reports, the facility had an almost “catastrophic” breach in 2021, causing 215 million gallons of toxic water to spill into Tampa Bay.

The breach was reportedly later found to have contributed to a red tide event and massive fish kill in the following months and resulted in a lawsuit from Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection. The lawsuit also reportedly prompted state lawmakers to budget $3 million to clean up the site.