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Florida's idea to use radioactive waste in road construction is unsafe, critics say

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Florida has a big problem - mountains of waste material left over from phosphate mining. In some parts of the state, they tower hundreds of feet in the air. The state is asking the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to use the waste to build roads. But as NPR's Greg Allen reports, there's a hitch. It's radioactive.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: It's called phosphogypsum. That's what's left over when phosphate rock is turned into fertilizer. More than 20 mountains of this material rise over rural areas in central and north Florida. And sometimes there are problems.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Developing right now, there's an around-the-clock effort to prevent an environmental catastrophe in Tampa Bay.

ALLEN: Two years ago, a holding pond next to stacks of phosphogypsum at a plant on Florida's Gulf coast began leaking, leading to the release of more than 200,000 gallons of contaminated water into the bay. And there have been other disasters. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of contaminated water spewed into Florida's aquifer after a sinkhole opened up under a stack at another phosphate plant. Rick Wilson is commissioner in Polk County, where several of these stacks are located. He says unless the industry and government can agree on a way to use this stuff, the mountains will just keep on growing.

RICK WILSON: That is the eyesore in Polk County. It's just something that could - if you could utilize this product, it would get gone eventually.

ALLEN: Wilson supports a measure recently signed into law by Governor Ron DeSantis directing the state's Department of Transportation to study using the mining waste in road construction. Right now roads are built using limestone rock and other aggregate as a base. The fertilizer industry thinks phosphogypsum could be a cheaper substitute, and there's already more than a billion tons for the taking.

JACKIE BARRON: If there is an alternative use for this material, and we don't have to grow or manage these stacks unnecessarily, then why would we not go down that path?

ALLEN: Jackie Barron is with the Mosaic company, the nation's largest phosphate producer. The company lobbied for the measure and is seeking EPA approval for its own demonstration road project in Florida. But there's that radioactivity issue. Using phosphogypsum to build roads has been proposed before. Ragan Whitlock with the Center for Biological Diversity says as far back as the late 1980s.

RAGAN WHITLOCK: At the request of the fertilizer industry, the Environmental Protection Agency put a blanket prohibition on the use of phosphogypsum in road construction after it found significant environmental and human health safety concerns.

ALLEN: Phosphogypsum contains radium 226, which emits radiation, and when it decays, forms radon, a gas that can cause cancer. Three years ago, under the Trump administration, the EPA lifted its long-time ban and said it would allow the material to be used in road construction. Several months later, the Biden administration withdrew that approval, saying more information is needed. Jackie Barron with Mosaic says no projects using phosphogypsum will begin in Florida unless the EPA says they're safe. And she says that's how it should be.

BARRON: The impacts to human health and the environment are the primary focus of the EPA's analysis. Ultimate approval rests with the EPA. We welcome as much testing as possible. We want people to know this is a safe resource, not a waste.

ALLEN: If the EPA says yes, it would effectively turn a hazardous material into an asset, something Mosaic and other companies could sell for road construction. Ragan Whitlock with the Center for Biological Diversity says radioactive waste left over from mining shouldn't be used to build roads.

WHITLOCK: This is simply an attempt to have another risky project that would provide another revenue stream to the phosphate industry at the expense of Floridians. This is not a solution. This is another money grab from the industry.

ALLEN: The EPA is evaluating Mosaic's application to use phosphogypsum in the pilot road project at its Polk County plant. Florida's Department of Transportation says it doesn't have any plans yet to seek approval for its own demonstration projects. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.