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EPA: Never Mind On Using Radioactive Gypsum Waste For Road Construction

A phosphate mine in Soda Springs, Idaho.
John Miller
Associated Press
A phosphate mine in Soda Springs, Idaho.

President Joe Biden's Environmental Protection Agency has reversed the agency's approval to add radioactive phosphogypsum wastes to materials used by government contractors to build roads. It concluded that the October approval in the waning days of the Trump administration "was premature." 

The use of the gypsum wastes for road building had been requested by the Fertilizer Institute, a national trade organization for fertilizer manufacturing plants that are located mostly in Louisiana and Florida. They have long struggled to find alternative ways of disposing of the gypsum, a byproduct of their production. 

EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials said Tuesday they were unaware of any actual requests since October by fertilizer companies to use the material for road building. 

"To date, EPA has not received information or inquiries from any potential user indicating the desire to use phosphogypsum in road construction," said EnestaJones, an EPA spokeswoman.

The reversal is being formally announced by EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a Federal Register notice that is to be published Wednesday. Regan sent it to the trade organization in a June 30 letter. 

Phosphogypsum is the waste left behind when phosphate rock is crushed and treated to create phosphoric acid for making fertilizer and other projects. Louisiana and Florida have been leading producer of the fertilizer chemical, while mines in Florida are a major source of the rock material.

The white-colored waste, which looks similar to the clean gypsum that is used in wallboard, is contaminated with small but measurable amounts of radium, uranium, thorium, radon and a number of toxic heavy metals. That has required phosphoric acid manufacturers to store it indefinitely in mountainous piles near their plants. 

In recent years, wastewater ponds built atop the piles have posed environmental threats to both natural resources and nearby residential areas. At the Mosaic fertilizer plant at Uncle Sam, in St. James Parish, a retaining wall around one of the ponds was failing several years ago, threatening to release contaminated water and waste into nearby streams. In Florida, a wastewater pond atop the former Piney Point fertilizer plant near Tampa released millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into Tampa Bay, killing fish and causing other damage. 

The Fertilizer Institute had proposed using the material as an additive or base material for road building, with the material only to be used within 200 miles of the pile from which it was removed. Under President Donald Trump, EPA agreed to the use in October. 

But in his notice to be published Wednesday, Regan said the earlier decision did not adequately consider a Clean Air Act provision that requires alternative uses to be at least as protective of public health as placement in a stack, and that requires the applicant to identify 10 components for each alternative use, such as where the material would be used and how much would be used. 

In December, a number of national, Louisiana and Florida environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to review the rule on those and other grounds. They charged that the use of the material in roads would pose a health risk to those living nearby.  

“Allowing phosphogypsum in roads was a boneheaded, short-sighted favor to the industry,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said about EPA's new policy reversal. “While the withdrawal cites technical deficiencies in the applicant’s petition, this action is consistent with 30 years of science showing that phosphogypsum poses a substantial risk to humans and the environment.”

"This proposal to utilize radioactive materials in roads throughout Gulf communities was just another insult to folks already overburdened with pollution," said Matt Rota, senior policy director of Healthy Gulf. 

Regan cited the opponents' court challenge to the rule. But he also said the EPA had authority to review past actions like the phosphogypsum use rule on its own initiative. And he said the decision does not prohibit future requests for alternative uses for the material, as long as they comply with federal law. 

"EPA would review any future application for an alternative use individually and make a determination if the application can be approved under these Clean Air Act regulations," Jones said.

Until then, though, "phosphogypsum must continue to be placed in stacks and may not be removed from stacks for use in road construction," Regan said.

This story is contributed by The Times-Picayune, a member of LMA’s Covering Climate Collaborative, a partnership focused on covering the impacts of climate change at the local level.