Florida wants to pave its roads with radioactive fertilizer waste
Radioactive nuclear symbol (AFP)

The Florida legislature passed a bill that could take the state one step closer to using a radioactive waste product from the fertilizer industry in road asphalt, reported NPR on Tuesday.

"HB 1191 would compel the Florida Transportation Department to study using phosphogypsum in paving projects, calling for 'demonstration projects using phosphogypsum in road construction aggregate material to determine its feasibility as a paving material,'" reported Bill Chappell. "If it's approved, phosphogypsum would join pavement aggregates such as crushed stone, gravel and sand. In recent years, the Federal Highway Administration says, industrial byproducts and reclaimed materials have also been used as aggregates. The bill sets a deadline of April 1, 2024, giving the transportation agency less than a year to complete its work and make a recommendation."

Phosphogypsum is a mildly radioactive waste byproduct from the industrial process used to purify phosphorus for use in fertilizer. Phosphate rocks are dissolved in sulfuric acid, extracting the phosphorus and leaving behind phosphogypsum, which contains traces of uranium and radium.

Florida, being a prominent center for fertilizer production, has large stacks of the material piling up with no use for it. These "gypstacks" have sometimes caused public hazards; a breach at the former Piney Point phosphate plant in 2021 let hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic water drain into Tampa Bay.

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Environmental conservation groups are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto the bill, concerned that phosphogypsum in roads will degrade water quality and produce radon gas, which is linked to cancer in prolonged exposure. The fertilizer industry disputes this, claiming that tests show phosphogypsum would not produce radiation levels above the EPA's required limit if used in asphalt. The EPA actually bans phosphogypsum in road surfacing; Florida legislators believe their plan is legal if it is used as aggregate material rather than "solid waste," but the EPA has not weighed in on this interpretation.

Radiation is popularly associated with nuclear power plants; however, because radioactive elements occur naturally in trace amounts throughout Earth's crust, and a lot of industrial processes concentrate this material, many other industries produce mildly radioactive waste — and it is usually far less heavily regulated than the fuel in nuclear reactors.

For example, a report from 2020 found that the oil and gas industry produces nearly a trillion gallons of radioactive waste per year, in the form of brine from fracking wells, and truckers were often transporting it from wells to disposal sites, allegedly without being told it was radioactive and without any protective equipment. Ohio even used a deicer allegedly made from this brine to spray on rural roads, but stopped doing so in 2021 after public outcry. (Energy companies for years have denied the deicer was fracking waste and mounted defamation lawsuits against groups claiming so.)