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Bills would allow radioactive byproducts of phosphate mining in road bed test projects

Mosaic's Bartow gypstack looms just over 500 feet, and is surrounded by trees, vegetation and water treatment ponds.
Daylina Miller
WUSF Public Media
Mosaic's Bartow gypstack looms just over 500 feet, and is surrounded by trees, vegetation and water treatment ponds.

Bills have been introduced in the state legislature that would allow the use of a radioactive byproduct of phosphate mining in road beds. Its use is currently prohibited across the country.

Thebill in the Florida House was introduced by Republican Lawrence McClure of Plant City. It would allow demonstration projects using phosphogypsum in road beds. It's a main component of mountain-like gypsum stacks that dot phosphate mining areas in Polk, Hardee, Manatee and Hillsborough counties.

A companion bill has been filed in the Florida Senate.

Federal regulations prohibit its use because of uranium and radium that can pose a health threat over a long period of time.

"We already have ample information that the use of phosphogypsum in roads is simply unacceptable," said Ragan Whitlock, an attorney with the environmental advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity in St. Petersburg. " And it poses too great a risk to our environment and to human health and safety. So the idea of an additional study is simply not needed at this time."

His group was part of a consortium that in 2021 got the Biden administration to withdraw a previous approval of its use in road beds.

That decisionoverturned a Trump-era move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow use of the byproducts of fertilizer production.

"It has high risks of cancer and genetic damage linked along with it," Whitlock said. "The EPA has prohibited its use in road construction for quite a long time due to the risks of radon exposure and leachate into ground water and significant environmental and health concerns posed by this product."

The mining industry has been searching for ways to reduce the size of gypstacks, such as the one at Piney Point that leaked into Tampa Bay in 2021.

But Whitlock said whittling down these mountains for road bed material doesn't mean that it would be locked down under asphalt forever.

"The unfortunate part of this is putting them in the roads and Florida creates a new system of ticking time bombs," he said. "We saw with Hurricane Ian bearing down on Florida's southwest coast last year— that roads in Florida are not here to stay. And with Hurricane Ian, parts of the Sanibel Causeway collapsed into the bay. We lost countless roads from Arcadia to Fort Myers, just washed away.

"And if phosphogypsum were in those roads, that would be a new source of radon emissions. There'll be a new source of toxic and heavy metals dumped back into our waterways. So unfortunately, no matter how you look at fossil gypsum, it's a ticking time bomb wherever it's placed."

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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