EPA keeps public in dark about building roads from phosphate’s radioactive waste – so we can better see the eerie glow?

October 22, 2020 7:00 am

Phosphogypsum stacks like this one, photographed near Fort Meade in 2007, contain radioactive waste. Credit: Harvey Henkelmann via Wikimedia Commons

Florida’s highways have frequently been built on a foundation of chicanery and political foolishness.

We’ve got toll roads that were built using fudged financial figures (Looking at you, Polk Parkway and Suncoast Parkway). We’ve got a Bridge to Nowhere that was built purely to benefit the then-speaker of the House but then went bankrupt (Hi there, Garcon Point Bridge). We’ve got a trio of expensive highways now under consideration that are opposed by the public but supported by wealthy roadbuilders and the politicians who took their campaign contributions.

But now we may soon see Florida roads that are built on something new: radioactive waste from phosphate mines.

When phosphate companies turn their mined rock into fertilizer, they produce about five tons of phosphogypsum waste to every ton of fertilizer. Since 1989, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has banned using that phosphogypsum waste for construction projects or anything else because it exceeds the level of radioactivity regarded as safe for humans.

With no other way to dispose of so much radioactive waste, the industry stacks it in huge piles, known as phosphogypsum stacks. The stacks tower over the flat Florida landscape. There are 25 of them scattered around the state and they can be up to 200 feet high.

Last week, with absolutely no notice to the public, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced the agency had changed its mind about phosphogypsum waste. Now, Wheeler said, the stuff that the EPA once deemed too dangerous is considered safe enough to use in building roads.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Credit: Eric Vance/EPA

“Allowing the reuse of phosphogypsum shows EPA’s commitment to working with industry in a way that both reduces environmental waste and protects public health,” Wheeler said in an EPA press release. Finding a constructive use for radioactive waste “demonstrates President Trump’s commitment to ‘win-win’ environmental solutions.”

I am sorry to report that Wheeler, a former coal industry lobbyist, did not explain how allowing the use of radioactive material in roads “protects public health.” Maybe the radiation somehow provides us all with free x-rays.

Wheeler was right on the money, though, in talking about “working with industry.” Or perhaps “working for industry” would be more accurate. I say that because of the reason the EPA decided to flip-flop on this issue. According to the agency, the decision was based on a study — but not one that was done by EPA scientists or disinterested scientists at an academic institution. No, the press release says this decision was based on “risk analyses conducted by TFI and reviewed by the EPA.”

TFI stands for “The Fertilizer Institute” — in other words, the people who produce all the phosphogypsum that’s stacking up all over Florida. So close is the relationship between the EPA and this industry group that the feds’ press release announcing the change was issued jointly with The Fertilizer Institute. I suppose you could say it was at least 50 percent fertilizer.

To have an industry group providing the science for a decision like this is sort of like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration decreeing that it’s OK to sell hot dogs full of rat hair, based on a risk analysis by the meatpacking industry.

EPA keeps public in the dark

Maybe rat hair tastes like caviar, and maybe radioactive phosphogypsum is as safe as regular gravel and sand in a road base. It’s hard to say because the EPA didn’t hold any public hearings to explain the proposal and respond to questions about it, or even tell anyone it was considering this before dropping this A-bomb (so to speak).

The person who first alerted me about Wheeler’s announcement was a rather flabbergasted Jacki Lopez, a Florida native who’s the state director for the Center for Biological Diversity. She said in an email that it was “completely inappropriate to make such an announcement without first publishing it in the federal register so everyone else — who is not the industry itself — can be made aware of this potentially significant public health and environmental concern.”

The New York Times ran a story last week that said a lot of federal agencies led by Trump appointees are scrambling to create more industry-friendly regulations in the final days before the Nov. 3 election “using a tactic known as an interim final rule, more typically reserved for emergencies, to skip the public comment period entirely.”

In this case, an EPA spokeswoman told me there’s nothing in the law requiring Wheeler to tell the public before reaching such a decision, so it didn’t bother.

Lopez told me she couldn’t understand how the EPA could approve the use in road building of a substance that the agency had previously deemed a human cancer risk, one with a radiation exposure similar to that of uranium mill tailings. In the 1990s, the agency said it even had the potential to contaminate our underground source of drinking water.

On the day the latest announcement came out, the EPA kept the public in the dark, offering none of the decision documents for public perusal. But finally, on Tuesday — a week after the announcement and a day after I asked for them — the EPA got around to posting all of its backup material online so we could see what had changed. The answer was: Not much.

Gypsum stacks are costly and unpopular

The analysis by The Fertilizer Institute looked at the risk to road construction workers, truck drivers transporting the phosphogypsum, utility workers performing work on utilities at or under roads, people who actually drive on the roads, and residents living near roads built with the radioactive stuff. The industry’s conclusion: Building roads with phosphogypsum “would be at least as protective as keeping [it] in stacks.”

The flaw in this logic, of course, is that while the stuff is stacked up on phosphate company property, the average citizen is unlikely to wander anywhere near it. A road, on the other hand, is something on which people would likely drive, skate, or ride a bike. Heck, they might even build a house next to it and live there. You never know — people might even like living by a road that, come nightfall, emits an eerie green radiance. Think of the money you could save on porch lights!

As I read the analysis and the petition that The Fertilizer Institute submitted just a year ago — wow, the EPA works fast when a polluting industry asks for a favor, doesn’t it? — I noticed a couple of interesting lines.

It said that one big alteration had taken place since the EPA had first banned using this stuff in roads: “The economics of gyp stacks has changed. The cost to stack and manage gyp stacks has increased beyond original expectations.” The public’s perception of the gyp stacks has changed too, it said: “Public pressure to cease this practice is growing.”

In other words, the fertilizer folks started pushing the EPA to make this change so it could dismantle these ugly and expensive stacks, make some money off what’s now a waste product, and quash one major public objection to the continued expansion of phosphate mining.

I checked with the Florida Department of Transportation and was told that agency has no immediate plans to start using radioactive phosphate waste in its road-building, for some reason. So who might be likely to use this stuff?

A giant sinkhole opened up beneath one of Mosaic’s massive phosphogypsum stacks four years ago, draining polluted water on top of the stack into the aquifer. Credit: Florida Channel screen grab

That’s when it occurred to me that I should ask Mosaic, the world’s largest phosphate company, which is headquartered in Tampa. A lot of gypsum stacks in Florida belong to Mosaic, including a couple that were hollowed out by sinkholes that drained the acidic ponds on top into the aquifer, giving the company a black eye. Mosaic is pretty happy about the EPA’s decision.

“This approval 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,” Mosaic spokeswoman Jackie Barron told me.

In 2013, Mosaic took one of its Polk County phosphate mines that had played out in the 1960s and converted it into a 36-hole golf resort called “Streamsong.” I asked Barron if Streamsong might be using this radioactive material to build and repair its roads. To my surprise, the answer was no.

“This pertains to government-built roads,” Barron said, “which means we will not be able to use it at Streamsong.”

That seems wrong to me. Why stick the taxpayers with the bill for getting rid of this stuff? If anyone should be building roads out of massive piles of radioactive waste, shouldn’t it be the people who created that waste in the first place?

Why, just thinking about all the fertilizer folks driving on road built from that stuff gives me a nice, warm glow.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.