Radioactive Roads 

Radioactive Roads 

How Far Will the Florida Government Go to Save a Quick Buck

Words by Carmen Macri and Ambar Ramirez 

 

On May 1, 2023, House Bill 1191 was passed by the Florida Senate to be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis for final approval. House Bill 1191 proposes “alternative ways to use certain recyclable materials that currently contribute to problems of declining space in landfills.” The “certain recyclable materials” include phosphogypsum, a waste product from manufacturing fertilizer that releases radon, an odorless, invisible, radioactive gas naturally released from rocks, soil and water. With the use of phosphogypsum, however, the more radon is released than what normally occurs in nature. Inhaling radon gas leaves radioactive particles in the lungs, which can gradually contribute to the development or escalation of lung cancer. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 21,000 deaths a occur each year from lung cancer caused by radon.

The state government and Mosiac Inc, a mining and fertilizer company based in Tampa, are pushing to use phosphogypsum in future paving plans, putting countless residents and local wildlife at risk. 

 

To provide some context, when sulfuric acid is used to dissolve phosphate rock for the production of phosphoric acid, which is primarily used in fertilizers and various other applications, a byproduct called phosphogypsum remains. According to the EPA, the state of Florida alone accounts for around 80 percent of the global capacity for phosphate production, making it the largest phosphate-producing region worldwide. Interestingly, it’s worth noting that phosphogypsum has been prohibited in road construction for more than three decades due to its significant detrimental effects on the surrounding environment. Consequently, one might wonder why the Florida Government intends to reintroduce it into our road surfaces. Great question. 

 

The Florida Government’s excuse for reintroducing phosphogypsum into pavement plans is due to “declining space in landfills”. Though phosphogypsum is not located in an average landfill; it is held in a gypsum stack that can be found in waste sites across Florida. A gypsum stack typically appears in the form of a towering mound or hill. The outer surface of the stack is usually covered with a protective lining or clay cap to prevent the escape of contaminants with lined reservoir ponds filled with wastewater surrounding the area. But the protective linings are not guaranteed to prevent an ecological disaster. In March 2021, the reservoir surrounding the former Piney Point phosphate plant located in Tampa Bay leaked causing a breach in the reservoir’s containment walls. According to The Florida Museum, to avoid large-scale collapse and to lower water levels to prevent major flooding, untreated, acidic wastewater was pumped into Tampa Bay. While the wastewater was not radioactive itself, it had high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which aided in the ongoing toxic algal blooms around the area killing local sea life. Dozens of residents in Manatee County and the surrounding area were evacuated as the event unfolded.

Despite the occurrence of sea life destruction and the need for local residents to evacuate as a result of the leak, both the Florida Government and Mosiac Inc. persist in their desire to incorporate the radioactive fertilizer waste into upcoming pavement projects.

 

Mosaic Inc. has raised thousands of dollars into campaign funds for Republican parties across the state and is endorsing bills that would allow the use of radioactive fertilizer waste in road construction. The largest gyp stack owned by Mosaic Inc., New Wales, can be found in Mulberry, Florida, and stretches across 704 acres. In 2016, a massive sinkhole was exposed at the New Wales stack and more than 200 million gallons of contaminated water leaked into the aquifer. It is incidents like these that are raising concerns among environmentalists and residents near these toxic tanks about using phosphogypsum in our roads. 

 

Among the local environmentalists raising concerns about house bill 1191 is St. Johns Riverkeeper Lisa Rinaman. Rinaman is an unwavering champion and resounding voice for the St. Johns River, boldly confronting the imminent threat of our imperiled rivers and aquifer. Armed with the indomitable power of her voice and highly respected position, Rinaman fervently ignites awareness and inspires change.

 

“This is just going to spread this cancer-causing toxic material on top of our very vulnerable aquifer, threatening our drinking water, as well as our waterways,” Rinaman shared. “The road workers are at the greatest risk because they’ll be expected to work with this radioactive material. And anyone visiting could be potentially exposed to it, whether they’re enjoying our springs that are fueled by the aquifer or drinking water. It puts us as residents at risk, as well as visitors to the state of Florida.”

 

Under the Trump administration in 2020, the EPA approved the use of toxic waste in road construction. But in 2021 the agency withdrew its compliance following a lawsuit from environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity. Phosphogypsum is high in radium-226 which is one of the most problematic elements — and it has a 1,600-year half-life. When radium decays, it forms radon, meaning this toxic waste material could not only seep into our groundwater supply but also affect our air quality. 

 

“One of the big risks is the exposure theory and the actual construction itself,” Rinaman explained. “You have that short-term being a potential risk and then it can sink and soak in if it’s used underneath a roadway. If the roadway breaks up, it can actually re-expose it. So, I mean, there’s risk in the very near term as well as over the course of time.”

 

Despite all of these detrimental effects, whether it be an ecological disaster or risking the health of workers and residents, the Florida Government and Mosaic Inc. are still pushing for the use of phosphogypsum in future pavement projects. So, the question remains: Why? Rinaman believes that corporate welfare is the backbone of House Bill 1191. Since Mosaic has raised thousands of dollars into campaign funds for Republican parties across the state, the fertilizer lobby seems to have a tight grip on the Florida government. 

 

“They’re basically controlling the politics of this,” Rinaman said. “So, they’re not looking at Floridians’ health, not today,  nor well into the future. They’re just looking at offsetting the cost [of road construction].”

 

One of the few to vote against this bill during committee hearings was Florida House Representative Angie Nixon. Upon hearing about house bill 1191, Nixon, who lives in Jacksonville, did her own research and found that voting “no” was an easy decision.

 

“These are all issues that are being ‘tested’ but based on the research I’ve done, I’m not even comfortable with the idea because according to medical experts, it causes cancer,” Nixon explained. “And I know that they will more than likely test it in marginalized communities.”

 

Unfortunately, Nixon and her Democratic colleagues were outnumbered. The House Infrastructure Strategies Committee approved the bill on May 1 with an amendment extending the deadline for the suitability studies from January to April 1, 2024. That means the Department of Transportation (DOT) has been authorized to undertake demonstration projects using phosphogypsum in road construction projects as well as conduct studies on using the toxic waste material as “construction aggregate material.” 

 

“I’m sure if you follow the money, you will find your answer,” Nixon said. “There’s probably a company that has donated to my Republican colleagues that want to use this material to save money on construction costs — because those in power are bought and paid for.” 

 

House Bill 1191 sponsor Lawerence McClure informed his colleagues the measure would unleash the potential of utilizing phosphogypsum in a beneficial manner, according to a WUSF Public Media article. Further, McClure mentioned phosphogypsum is safely used in roads and concrete around the world including like Russia and China. An opposing argument for using phosphogypsum in road construction and agriculture is that it would be considered more environmentally friendly. Rather than facing the risk of another leak with large amounts of phosphogypsum being held in gyp stacks across the state, it would be “safer” to disperse the radioactive material in roads. 

 

Doug Chambers, executive vice president and director of radioactivity and risk studies at SENES Consultants Limited in Richmond Hill, Ontario, has been working in the area of environmental radioactivity and risk assessment for more than 30 years studying both radioactive and non-radioactive substances. Chambers realizes that while the use of phosphogypsum is dangerous if used inappropriately, the EPA study that prohibits the use of the material is outdated and excludes the use of other toxic waste materials that are used in agriculture currently. 

 

“In their 1992 analysis, the EPA assumed a lifetime of 70 years of exposure, and yes, that is indeed possible but it is highly unlikely,” Chambers explained during House Hearing 108 to Congress. “In their Exposure Factors Handbook, a document prepared by EPA based on national data and surveys, EPA recommends a duration of exposure of 30 years, which according to the EPA is the upper 95th percentile. In other words, only 5 people out of 100 might live longer in a single home than 30 years.”

 

During the same hearing, Michael Lloyd, research director of chemical processing at 

the Florida Institute of Phosphate Research in Bartow, has done extensive research on the subject of phosphogypsum and specifically how it can be used for road building. Under sponsored research, Lloyd along with his team built two secondary roads in Polk County and Columbia County to test how phosphogypsum reacts environmentally and in construction. Both have been tested environmentally with the Polk County road still being consistently tested today.  

 

“The [EPA] ban on agriculture was based on averaging the use in California for soil treatment and using it for agriculture in this part of the country,” Lloyd explained during the hearing. “The two uses that were used to get an average are totally unrelated.”

 

Although certain researchers argue that the appropriate utilization of phosphogypsum results in negligible short-term consequences, environmentalists maintain their concerns about the potential long-term effects. They emphasize the extended use of phosphogypsum could lead to the contamination of air, water and soil, posing significant risks such as the development of cancer among construction workers.

 

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