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Florida House Bill 1191 could allow state to pave roads with radioactive material

A bill in the Florida House of Representatives, HB 1191, could potentially allow the state to pave its roads with phosphogypsum – a mildly radioactive waste material used in the fertilizer industry.

Under the House bill, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) will study the use of phosphogypsum in paving projects as “construction aggregate material to determine its feasibility as a paving material.” 

If approved, phosphogypsum would join pavement aggregates such as crushed stone, gravel and sand. The bill has a deadline of April 1, 2024, giving the FDOT less than a year to complete its work and make a recommendation. 

What is phosphogypsum?

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that phosphogypsum is a waste product from manufactured fertilizer that emits a radioactive gas called radon. It also contains the radioactive elements of uranium, thorium, and radium.

Why is phosphogypsum being considered as paving material?

The Florida legislature says that it’s in the public interest to find alternative ways to use certain recyclable materials that are currently part of the solid waste stream that are cluttering landfills for paving material. 

Some of these materials include ground rubber from tires, ash residue from coal combustion byproducts, recycled mixed-plastic material and phosphogypsum from phosphate production among others.

Phosphate mining is the fifth-largest mining industry in the U.S. In 2019 alone, an estimated 223 million metric tons of phosphate rock were removed from the ground. The process creates a lot of leftover phosphogypsum. 

The significant deposit means it is widely available almost everywhere in Florida, and the material would be “cheaper and as effective, if not more, as current road base material,” according to a report from Florida Polytechnic University.

However, critics of the legislation have directly asked Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the bill, saying phosphogypsum will hurt water quality and put road construction crews at a higher risk of cancer.

Is phosphogypsum dangerous?

“Phosphogypsum contains appreciable quantities of uranium and its decay products, such as radium-226,” according to the EPA.  “The radium is of particular concern because it decays to form radon, a cancer-causing, radioactive gas.”

The Center for Biological Diversity along with 30 other groups in a letter to Gov. DeSantis said using phosphogypsum will not solve the fertilizer industry’s toxic waste problem. 

“Florida should not be a test subject in the industry’s reckless experiment,” the letter said.

However, an analysis commissioned by the Fertilizer Institute said that using phosphogypsum in road construction will not produce radioactive doses that are above the EPA’s acceptable risks. Such work, it stated, “can be done safely and results in doses that are a small fraction of those arising from natural background radiation.”

So, what’s next?

DeSantis hasn’t said if he will veto HB 1191. He could sign the phosphogypsum road-test measure at any time; however, if he takes no action by April 2024, the bill will be enacted automatically.

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