President Joe Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency canceled agency approval to add radioactive substances phosphogypsum from waste to materials used by government contractors to build roads. He concluded that the October approval in the dying days of the Trump administration “was premature.”
The use of gypsum waste for road construction had been requested by the Fertilizer Institute, a national sales organization for fertilizer manufacturing plants located primarily in Louisiana and Florida. They have long struggled to find other ways to eliminate gypsum, a by-product of their production.
“To date, the EPA has not received any information or inquiries from any potential users indicating a desire to use phosphogypsum in road construction,” said EnestaJones, a spokesperson for the EPA. .
The reversal is officially announced by EPA administrator Michael Regan in a Federal Register notice due for release Wednesday. Regan sent it to the trade organization in a June 30 letter.
Phosphogypsum is the waste left during the crushing of phosphate rock and processed to create phosphoric acid for making fertilizer and other projects. Louisiana and Florida have been the major producers of chemical fertilizers, while the Florida mines are a major source of rock.
The white colored waste, which resembles the clean gypsum used in wall panels, is contaminated with small but measurable amounts of radium, uranium, thorium, radon and a number of toxic heavy metals. This forced the makers of phosphoric acid to store it indefinitely in mountain heaps near their factories.
In recent years, sewage ponds built on top of stilts have posed environmental threats to both natural resources and neighboring residential areas. At Mosaic fertilizer plant at Uncle Sam in St. James Parish, a retaining wall around one of the ponds collapsed several years ago, threatening to release contaminated water and trash into nearby streams. In Florida, a sewage pond atop the former Piney Point fertilizer plant near Tampa dumped millions of gallons of contaminated sewage into Tampa Bay, killing fish and causing others. damage.
The Fertilizer Institute had proposed using the material as an additive or base material for road building, with the material only to be used within 200 miles of the pile from which it was removed. Under President Donald Trump, the EPA accepted the use in October.
But in his notice for release Wednesday, Regan said the previous ruling failed to adequately address a provision of the Clean Air Act that requires alternative uses to be at least as protective of public health as placement. in a stack, and which requires the applicant to identify 10 components for each alternate use, such as where the material would be used and how much would be used.
In December, a number of national environmental groups in Louisiana and Florida asked the District of Columbia’s United States Court of Appeals to review the rule on these and other grounds. They accused that the use of the material in the roads would pose a health risk to those who live nearby.
“Allowing phosphogypsum on the roads was a stupid and shortsighted favor of the industry,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, of the EPA’s new policy reversal. “Although the withdrawal cites technical shortcomings in the plaintiff’s request, this action is consistent with 30 years of science showing that phosphogypsum poses a substantial risk to humans and the environment.”
“This proposal to use radioactive material on the roads of Gulf communities was just another insult to people already overburdened with pollution,” said Matt Rota, senior policy director at Healthy Gulf.
Regan cited the legal challenge from opponents of the rule. But he also said the EPA has the power to review past actions such as the phosphogypsum use rule on its own initiative. And he said the ruling does not bar future requests for alternative uses of the material, as long as they comply with federal law.
“The EPA would individually review any future alternative use request and determine if the request can be approved under these Clean Air Act regulations,” Jones said.
Until then, however, “the phosphogypsum must continue to be placed in piles and cannot be removed from the piles for use in road construction,” Regan said.
This story is a contribution of Times-Picayune, member of LMA’s Covering Climate Collaborative, a partnership focused on covering the impacts of climate change at the local level.