Ron's Radioactive Roads
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has signed a bill that permits the use of radioactive mining waste, specifically phosphogypsum, in the construction of roads across the state. This bill categorizes phosphogypsum as a “recyclable material”, despite potential health risks associated with its use.
What is phosphogypsum?
Phosphogypsum is a byproduct of phosphate mining. It’s a radioactive waste product from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid (predominantly used in fertilizer).
Is it dangerous?
Phosphogypsum contains uranium, and radium-226, which has a radioactive decay half-life of 1,600 years. It can release large concentrations of radon gas, a radioactive substance linked to lung cancer. It poses a hazard for many generations.
In addition to radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and the wastewater it produces contain toxic heavy metals: antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium, and zinc. It also contains phosphoric acid, sulfuric acid, and ammonia.
These substances are harmful to humans, wildlife, and the environment. And, gypstack sites often house other industrial operations, increasing the risk of chemical spills. In 2021, for instance, 1,700 tons of 40% phosphoric acid solution was discharged due to a ruptured tank at the New Wales facility, although it was contained on-site and cleaned up shortly after.
Is there a lot of it?
Yes. More than 1 billion tons of this radioactive waste have already been stored in 25 stacks throughout Florida. For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates five tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste.
How is phosphogypsum stored?
Phosphogypsum is stored in large stacks known as gypstacks. Gypstacks are massive structures that can cover hundreds of acres and reach up to 500 feet tall. They are an eyesore on Florida’s landscape, and any instability can lead to significant environmental disasters.
Where are they?
These gypstacks are predominantly in northern and central Florida. They are often located atop aquifers, which supply drinking water to millions of people. When a gypstack fails, it can contaminate these crucial water sources.
Do they ever fail?
They do fail. In April 2021, fearing the imminent failure of Mosaic’s Piney Point phosphogypsum stack in Tampa Bay, Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for Manatee and two neighboring counties, evacuated more than 300 homes, and closed a major highway.
At that time, acting county administrator Scott Hopes said an “immense amount of water” could rush out in a sheet within seconds or minutes if berms at the site failed, creating a flood several feet high that would sweep through the immediate area.
To avoid a catastrophe, authorities pumped more than 200 million gallons of polluted wastewater directly into Tampa Bay. The wastewater leak at Piney Point had significant impact on water quality and the health of local ecosystems. Satellite images showed algal blooms in the area following the discharge of wastewater.
This was not an isolated incident:
- In 1994, a sinkhole opened underneath a gypstack in Polk County, Florida, sending tons of waste into the Floridan Aquifer, a crucial water source.
- In 1997, a dam at the top of a gypstack broke during heavy rains, spilling 56 million gallons of acidic wastewater into the North Fork of the Alafia River, killing over a million fish.
- In 2001, a Piney Point stack leaked thousands of gallons of ammonia-laden waste into ditches leading into one of the prime breeding areas for fish and marine life in Tampa Bay.
- In 2004, high winds from a tropical storm caused a breach in a gypstack in Riverview, Florida, spilling millions of gallons of polluted water into Archie Creek, flowing into Tampa Bay.
- In 2011, the liner of a Piney Point gypstack was punctured. 170 million gallons of contaminated water were dumped into Bishop Harbor and lower Tampa Bay.
- In 2016, echoing the 1994 incident, a second massive sinkhole at Mosaic’s New Wales Plant resulted in the release of more than 200 million gallons of polluted water and waste material, laced with sulfate and sodium, into the Floridan Aquifer.
Since the 2021 Piney Point evacuation, gypstack problems have continued. In 2022, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection reported a possible tear in a protective liner at Mosaic’s New Wales fertilizer facility.
Will the EPA prevent Florida from building radioactive roads?
The legislation passed in Florida stipulates that the use of phosphogypsum must comply with the conditions set by the EPA, and the EPA approved the use of phosphogypsum for road base in 2020.
The EPA withdrew their approval in 2021, pending more supporting documentation from The Fertilizer Institute, but this regulatory speed bump seems unlikely to stop the plan in the long term.
Governor DeSantis has approved this, and it seems likely that Florida will have radioactive roads in the future unless Congress acts to prevent it.