Conservation groups are sounding the alarm over a newly passed piece of legislation that could mean the inclusion of radioactive waste materials in Florida road paving mixes. The substance at the center of the controversy is called "phosphogypsum" and is created in large quantities by the fertilizer industry, as a byproduct of the creation of important phosphorus. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, still acts as the regulatory authority over the substance, which means that in order for the Florida law (HB 1191) to take full effect, it would demand a review by the federal agency.
What is known currently about HB 1191, which passed by a wide vote in the Republican controlled body, would require the Florida Transportation Department to research phosphogypsum paving projects, asking for, "demonstration projects using phosphogypsum in road construction aggregate material to determine its feasibility as a paving material."
If it is approved, it would mean that phosphogypsum could be included in pavement aggregates and asphalt mixes along with all the other normally used types of materials. Of course, other industrial byproducts and reclaimed waste materials have been included in asphalt for a long time, but this substance has special characteristics which makes it potentially damaging to, not only the environment, but also to the workers who handle it.
What is it and why does Florida want to use it?
Florida produces approximately 80 percent of the world's phosphorus fertilizer, according to the EPA, but it doesn't do so efficiently. In an article by NPR reporting on the new law, Bill Chappel said, "For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, more than 5 tons of phosphogypsum waste is generated. Florida's prominent role means the state also has massive waste sites called phosphogypsum stacks, or 'gypstacks.' Such stacks can be very large — spanning up to 800 acres and about 200 feet in height. "
The EPA's website on fertilzers and its byproducts says that they contain or may contain:
Phosphogypsum contains appreciable quantities of uranium and its decay products, such as radium-226, which is of particular concern, because it is known to decay into Radon gas, a carcinogen. Road construction workers would be at increased levels of risk to these radioactive substances, more than the general public, because of their exposure to asphalt when it is either heated, being paved, or, especially, when it is milled back up and reclaimed later. The potential for direct physical contact and/or the inhalation of radioactive particulates during production, storage, or recycling should give legislators pause when considering the health and safety of the workers in our industry.
What Happens Next?
Unsurprisingly, an analysis commissioned by the Fertilizer Institute, a group that represents the fertilizer industry, argues that it is safe. They claim that the increase in radioactive exposure is negligible when considering the normal background levels of radiation. Whether or not that is the case, the men and women who would daily be exposed to the materials on the job would suffer the cumulative effects. In addition to that, road water runoff hasn't been ruled out as hazardous, and Florida sees more inches of rain than any other state in the continental U.S.
The real question is, how many road construction workers did they talk to about it? If you're a road worker in the state of Florida, it might be time to pick up the phone and call your representative, and tell them whether or not you want to be exposed to radioactive waste while paving or working on their roads
The bill's deadline is April 1, 2024, which means the transportation agency has less than a year to complete its work and make a recommendation. Ron DeSantis, Florida's Governor could sign the phosphogypsum road-test measure into law at any time; it he takes no action, the bill will be enacted automatically.