ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.— Following Hurricane Ian’s path of destruction across Florida, demolished roads and collapsed bridges highlight the danger of proposals to use toxic, radioactive phosphogypsum waste in road construction. For years, lawmakers have attempted to allow this dangerous practice.
“The pulverized roads and bridges left by Hurricane Ian leave no question that it would be foolish and dangerous to fill Florida’s roads with radioactive waste,” said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The destruction Floridians face from intensifying storms is bad enough without the fear of unleashing toxic waste in our communities.”
The Environmental Protection Agency has long prohibited use of phosphogypsum in roads because it contains uranium and radium that produce radionuclides linked to higher risks of cancer and genetic damage. But for several years the fertilizer industry has pushed lawmakers to allow it.
In 2020 the EPA under the Trump administration approved the use of phosphogypsum in roads. Following a lawsuit and petition by the Center and other environmental, public health and union groups, in 2021 the EPA withdrew its approval for use of phosphogypsum in roads.
This year Congress introduced a bill that would have approved the use of phosphogypsum in roads. While the bill is unlikely to pass this Congress, future legislative attempts to allow the dangerous practice are expected.
Hurricane Ian destroyed roads across southwest Florida, including swaths of the Sanibel Causeway, cutting off the only access to the island. As climate change drives storms of increasing intensity, Florida faces similar destruction in the future.
Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid, which is predominantly used in fertilizer. Radium-226, found in phosphogypsum, has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life.
In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and process wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.
In 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency determined that the use of phosphogypsum in road construction presents an unacceptable risk to public health. Since then the EPA has required phosphogypsum be stored in stacks because the radon it emits can cause serious harms to health, including cancer, genetic damage and birth deformities.
Phosphogypsum is currently stored in mountainous stacks called “gypstacks” that are hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. More than 1 billion tons of the radioactive waste has already been stored in 25 stacks scattered throughout Florida, perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer, which supplies drinking water for 10 million people.
Phosphogypsum poses distinct threats to road-building workers and nearby residents. The EPA also found that the use of phosphogypsum in roads may cause adverse effects to nearby surface and groundwater resources.
*Original full-text article online at: https://biologicaldiversity.org/w/news/press-releases/hurricane-ian-reveals-dangers-of-proposal-to-use-toxic-phosphogypsum-in-road-construction-2022-10-04/