Image by Larisa Koshkina from Pixabay

The Trump administration authorized radioactive fertilizer to be added in road construction. The Biden administration said wait, maybe the decision was premature.

President Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency has reversed the agency’s approval to add radioactive phosphogypsum wastes to materials used by government contractors to build roads. It concluded that the October approval in the waning days of the Trump administration “was premature.”  The use of the gypsum wastes for road building had been requested by the Fertilizer Institute, a national trade organization for fertilizer manufacturing plants that are located mostly in Louisiana and Florida. They have long struggled to find alternative ways of disposing of the gypsum, a byproduct of their production.  EPA and Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality officials said Tuesday they were unaware of any actual requests since October by fertilizer companies to use the material for road building.  “To date, EPA has not received information or inquiries from any potential user indicating the desire to use phosphogypsum in road construction,” said EnestaJones, an EPA spokeswoman.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan is announcing this in the Federal Register. The trade groups were advised by letter on June 30th.

Phosphogypsum is the waste left behind when phosphate rock is crushed and treated to create phosphoric acid for making fertilizer and other projects. Louisiana and Florida have been leading producer of the fertilizer chemical, while mines in Florida are a major source of the rock material. The white-colored waste, which looks similar to the clean gypsum that is used in wallboard, is contaminated with small but measureable amounts of radium, uranium, thorium, radon and a number of toxic heavy metals. That has required phosphoric acid manufacturers to store it indefinitely in mountainous piles near their plants. In recent years, wastewater ponds built atop the piles have posed environmental threats to both natural resources and nearby residential areas. At the Mosaic fertilizer plant at Uncle Sam, in St. James Parish, a retaining wall around one of the ponds was failing several years ago, threatening to release contaminated water and waste into nearby streams. In Florida, a wastewater pond atop the former Piney Point fertilizer plant near Tampa released millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into Tampa Bay, killing fish and causing other damage. 

The Fertilizer Institute wanted the use of fertilizer as an additive or base started but only within 200 miles of the plant it was taken from. Why 200 miles or is there danger in a longer transit? The EPA agreed.

But in his notice to be published Wednesday, Regan said the earlier decision did not adequately consider a Clean Air Act provision that requires alternative uses to be at least as protective of public health as placement in a stack, and that requires the applicant to identify 10 components for each alternative use, such as where the material would be used and how much would be used. In December, a number of national, Louisiana and Florida environmental groups petitioned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to review the rule on those and other grounds. They charged that the use of the material in roads would pose a health risk to those living nearby.  “Allowing phosphogypsum in roads was a boneheaded, short-sighted favor to the industry,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said about EPA’s new policy reversal. “While the withdrawal cites technical deficiencies in the applicant’s petition, this action is consistent with 30 years of science showing that phosphogypsum poses a substantial risk to humans and the environment.” “This proposal to utilize radioactive materials in roads throughout Gulf communities was just another insult to folks already overburdened with pollution,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director of Healthy Gulf. 

Regan noted that the court cases had a part in this action but asserted that the EPA has the right to review prior decisions on their own and do not need a court case to start the review. He also noted that this does not stop all road construction additives or fillers but each would be looked at individually if proposed.

“EPA would review any future application for an alternative use individually and make a determination if the application can be approved under these Clean Air Act regulations,” Jones said. Until then, though, “phosphogypsum must continue to be placed in stacks and may not be removed from stacks for use in road construction,” Regan said.

Now our roads will not glow! The initial action shows the problem of giving business all the want when they want it. The health of the nation should also be a factor in decision making.

Radioactive roads?
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