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EPA revokes use of phosphate waste products in road beds

Several environmental advocacy groups sued last year to overturn the waiver, which would have allowed the use of the slightly radioactive waste in road construction.

The Biden administration has withdrawn a previous approval of the use of phosphogypsum - the toxic byproduct of phosphate mining - in road beds.

This means the mountains of phosphate waste peppering Florida's landscape will remain.

The decision overturns a Trump-era move by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to allow use of the byproducts of fertilizer production. It was the first and only proposed alternative use of the slightly radioactive waste, now stored in two dozen mountainous "gypstacks" around the Tampa Bay region that can reach 50 stories high.

"The idea that we could possibly keep people and the environment safe from radioactive material, which then could become dispersed throughout the environment - as opposed to being kept in stacks - there's no foundation for that assumption," said Jaclyn Lopez with the Center for Biological Diversity.

Hers is one of the environmental advocacy groups that sued last year to overturn the waiver, which meant that it never went into effect. That lawsuit is now moot.

"Our preference would be that the industry stops making this radioactive waste," Lopez said, "and in the meantime we keep it in the stacks, so at least we know where it is, and we can keep the companies that create the waste financially responsible for them, and continue to better regulate this industry that seems to have a pretty poor track record of protecting the environment from its activities."

Industry advocates have said use in road beds would be one way to whittle down gypstacks, which have caused several environmental catastrophes in recent years. One, at Piney Point in Manatee County, allowed more than 200 million gallons of wastewater stored there to flow into Tampa Bay earlier this year.

Florida has one billion tons of radioactive phosphogypsum in two dozen stacks, including Piney Point. That nutrient-rich water has been blamed for algae blooms, and possibly exacerbating the affects of red tide.

The waiver had been requested by the Fertilizer Institute, which represents manufacturers and suppliers, including phosphate miners. But since only the miners construct gypstacks, the institute couldn't give the EPA enough information that the use in road base would be safe.

Here's an excerpt from the ruling:

Under Clean Air Act (CAA) regulations, EPA may approve a request for a specific use of phosphogypsum if it is determined that the proposed use is at least as protective of human health as placement in a stack. Upon review, EPA found that The Fertilizer Institute’s request did not provide all the information required for a complete request under these regulations. The EPA withdrew the approval for this reason. The decision was effective immediately, and phosphogypsum remains prohibited from use in road construction.