A controversial proposal to look into using phosphogypsum as a road-building material is on its way to consideration by the full House.
“This legislation will allow Florida to unlock the recycling potential of (phosphogypsum), and eliminate massive gypstacks as the only option for managing phosphogypsum, upon EPA approval,” Dover Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure said to the House Infrastructure Strategies Committee.
The bill (HB 1191) sets out to accomplish several things, but primarily, it directs the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to look into the suitability of using phosphogypsum in road base, including consideration of existing and ongoing studies.
“After a (phosphogypsum) stack has become an inactive stack, the owner or operator must assure that the stack does not emit more than a specified amount of radon-222 into the air,” according to a House staff analysis of current law.
“However, (phosphogypsum) may be lawfully removed from the stack for use for outdoor agricultural research and development and agricultural field use if certain requirements are met. (Phosphogypsum) may also be used for distribution for indoor research and development if certain conditions are met. (Phosphogypsum) may not be removed from a stack and distributed or used for other purposes without EPA approval.”
The EPA approved road construction use under the Donald Trump administration, then with the change of Presidents came a change in policy.
“Upon further review, EPA has determined that the approval was premature and should be withdrawn because the request did not contain all of the required information,” the EPA announced in 2021. “With this action, phosphogypsum remains prohibited from use in road construction projects.”
The use of such a potentially dangerous substance drew pause from environmental and worker advocates.
“We think that this bill is going to expose the public — especially nearby, long-term residents and construction workers — to radiation from radium-226, which occurs naturally with the phosphate ore, and also from its decay product, radon, which is a well-recognized carcinogen, and polonium, also a carcinogen and also sometimes associated with Russian assassinations,” said David Cullen, representing the Sierra Club.
For every ton of phosphorus produced, the process also turns out five tons of phosphogypsum. There are around 1 billion tons of phosphogypsum divided among 24 stacks in Florida, with 30 million new tons created annually.
“Part of (the process) is absolutely going to contemplate the health and safety of folks who are coming into contact with it, and of course to the extent it’s being used underneath our roadways — whether in a blend or by itself — vehicles are going to be driving on it, and how they interact, I imagine, would be a critical part of the study,” McClure said.
The bill’s language states the legislation won’t affect Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) permitting of gypstack systems pursuant to existing Florida law.
The EPA banned use of phosphogypsum in 1989, but the rule opened for limited agricultural use a few years later.
The committee approved HB 1191 by a 14-5 vote.