EPA approves use of phosphogypsum in roads

By Bruce Ritchie

U. S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler on Wednesday approved an industry group's request to allow phosphogypsum, a byproduct of fertilizer production, to be used in building roadways.

Wheeler granted a request from the Fertilizer Institute to use the waste, which contains radioactive material and is being stored in towering stacks at sites around Southwest Florida where fertilizer is produced from phosphate.

Phosphogypsum contains radium, which decays to form radon, a cancer-causing, radioactive gas, the EPA said.

Details: Studies from the Fertilizer Institute demonstrated that use of phosphogypsum in road construction is safe, avoids the risk of storing the material and represents the most significant effort towards finding an alternative use for the byproduct since the 1990s, EPA said in a news release. The agency said the group submitted the request a year ago.

“Allowing the reuse of phosphogypsum shows EPA’s commitment to working with industry in a way that both reduces environmental waste and protects public health,” Wheeler said in the release Wednesday.

Reaction: Some Florida environmentalists were surprised by the announcement and are concerned that allowing phosphogypsum to be used in roads could present health risks from exposure to the material and groundwater contamination.

"Quite frankly this is something we have been preparing for for decades and hoping we would never have to address the issue on the federal level," Glenn Compton, chair of the ManaSota-88, a nonprofit environmental group, said in an interview. "It looks like it has presented itself."

Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity, listed previous studies the EPA had cited previously in determining that phosphogypsum was too radioactive for use in road projects.

"Without seeing the EPA’s analysis (assuming there is one), I can’t imagine what has changed, except the agency’s tolerance for which and how many people get sick or die as a result of exposure," Lopez said in an email.

The prepared Federal Register notice said the agency will publish a docket in the case.

EPA spokesperson Enesta Jones said the agency needed time to respond to criticism and questions about the action announced Wednesday, including how the public could become involved at this point.

Kathy Mathers, vice president of public affairs for The Fertilizer Institute, did not respond to telephone messages and emails requesting comment.

What's next: Compton said he doesn't know what the next step is for ManaSota-88 and other environmental groups until they can review agency documents involving the announcement.