Florida Bill Permits Use of Phosphogypsum, a Radioactive Waste, in Road Construction

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed a bill permitting the use of phosphogypsum, a potentially hazardous waste product from fertilizer manufacturing, in the construction of new roads.

What is Phosphogypsum?

Phosphogypsum, a radioactive byproduct of phosphorus fertilizer production, contains trace elements such as uranium, thorium, and radium. It emits radon, a radioactive gas, which is the second leading cause of lung cancer, linked to 21,000 lung cancer deaths annually in the U.S. This has raised concerns among critics and environmentalists.

The HB 1191 Bill

Under the new law, HB 1191, phosphogypsum joins a list of “recyclable materials” that can be used for road construction, which already includes waste from coal production and old car tires. However, the bill, first passed by the Florida state legislature in February, has been the subject of much debate.

Criticisms and Concerns

Critics argue that this move is a “reckless handout to the fertilizer industry.” There are concerns about the potential health risks, especially in light of past incidents related to phosphate mining, such as a 2021 breach at a former phosphate mining facility that resulted in 215 million gallons of environmentally toxic water ending up in the Tampa Bay area. Elise Bennett from the Center for Biological Diversity has warned about the potential health and safety issues surrounding the bill, citing the possible absorption of trace metals by groundwater and the dispersion of radioactive toxins by wind and traffic.

Upcoming Department of Transportation Study

In response to these concerns, the bill mandates that the state’s Department of Transportation conduct a study evaluating the suitability of phosphogypsum in road construction. The results of this study, due by April 1, 2024, will likely influence the future implementation of the bill.

The Impact on Florida’s Phosphogypsum Stacks

If the bill is fully implemented, it’s expected that the phosphogypsum used in construction will be sourced from Florida’s hundreds of stand-alone stacks, large containment areas storing runoff from phosphorus fertilizer production. These stacks house approximately 1 billion tons (907 million metric tonnes) of radioactive waste. They are typically located along the state’s coast due to the production process’s need for large amounts of water. These stacks have posed environmental risks in the past. In a notable incident two years ago, excessive rainfall caused one stack to collapse into the Piney Point reservoir, flooding into the ocean and causing a harmful algal bloom or “red tide” that killed about 1,600 tons of marine life and forced evacuations in nearby towns. As hurricane seasons become increasingly severe, concerns have grown about the inadequate protections and structures surrounding these stacks, potentially leading to more such disasters. Jaclyn Lopez, an environmental law professor at Stetson University in Florida, expressed her concerns to Bloomberg News, “The half-life of a phosphogypsum stack’s radioactive decay is 1,600 years, so this is going to be a problem for me, my kids, and their kids. With the increasing hurricane strength and frequency, it’s a real big concern for Tampa Bay.” Given the history of environmental issues and the potential health risks, the decision to permit the use of phosphogypsum in road construction has undeniably sparked controversy and concern among many Floridians. “Among many Floridians.”

The Controversy Continues

The debate about the safety and environmental impact of using phosphogypsum in construction is far from over. Environmentalists, health experts, and concerned citizens continue to voice their worries about the potential consequences of this bill.

Regulatory Reversal and its Implications

The move by the Florida state to pass HB 1191 comes as a reversal to a decision made by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Joe Biden’s administration, which had rolled back a Trump-era permission to use phosphogypsum in construction. The Biden administration’s decision was based on concerns about the trace metals getting absorbed by groundwater and radioactive toxins being dispersed in the air by wind and traffic.

Potential Environmental Implications

Notably, the phosphogypsum stacks in Florida are susceptible to environmental conditions, particularly during the state’s hurricane season. Critics argue that the lack of robust protective measures around these stacks increases the risk of environmental disasters. As hurricanes become more frequent and potent due to climate change, the threat posed by these stacks could grow exponentially. The significant environmental threat these stacks pose was dramatically illustrated two years ago when a stack collapsed into the Piney Point reservoir following excessive rainfall. The ensuing flood caused a “red tide”, a harmful algal bloom, killing about 1,600 tons of marine life and prompting evacuations in nearby towns.

The Future of Phosphogypsum in Florida

The future usage of phosphogypsum in road construction remains uncertain until the Department of Transportation completes its study. While the bill’s signing indicates a political willingness to consider alternative materials for road construction, its practical application will depend on the study’s findings. The study, mandated by HB 1191, must evaluate the potential impacts and viability of using phosphogypsum in road construction. If the study concludes that the use of phosphogypsum presents significant health or environmental risks, the bill may face significant barriers to implementation.

Public Response and Concern

The public response to the passing of HB 1191 has been mixed, with many voicing concerns about the potential health and environmental impacts. Florida’s history with phosphate mining and the associated environmental incidents have made many wary of the potential repercussions of the bill. This new law has placed Florida at the intersection of environmental safety, industrial efficiency, and public health. As such, the decision to permit the use of phosphogypsum in road construction and the impending Department of Transportation study will continue to attract attention and stir debate among many Floridians, making it a crucial issue to watch in the months and years to come.

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