EPA withdraws rule allowing use of radioactive material in road construction

EPA withdraws rule allowing use of radioactive material in road construction
© Greg Nash

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has withdrawn a 2020 rule that would allow a radioactive substance in some road construction.

The October 2020 rule allowed the use of phosphogypsum, a substance generated by phosphate fertilizer production. The waste product is kept in 13 predominantly southeastern states, where the majority of the construction would have occurred.

Between 1989 and the Trump-era rule, the EPA required that all phosphogypsum be stored in “stacks” that experts and activists said would release dangerous amounts of radon gas if dispersed. In Florida alone, 1 billion tons of the substance are stored in 25 stacks, one of which recently leaked millions of gallons into a wastewater reservoir near Tampa Bay.

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In a memo dated June 30, EPA Administrator Michael ReganMichael ReganEPA finalizes rule cutting use of potent greenhouse gas used in refrigeration Former EPA chief to chair pro-Trump think tank's environmental center Overnight Energy & Environment — Effort to repeal Arctic refuge drilling advances MORE specifically addresses the Oct. 14, 2020, letter from the agency approving a request from the Fertilizer Institute to use the stacks for road construction.

Regan wrote that the agency “does not believe it can be reasonably contended” that the request for approval of phosphogypsum complied with federal regulations.

“The request generally described the type of road construction that might be undertaken but identified no actual road construction project and gave little specific, particularized information about the proposed use,” he wrote, adding that the request further did not provide sufficient information about how any of the substance that was not used would be disposed of.

As a result, Regan wrote, the EPA rescinded the approval of the “broad, generalized request” to use the substance in road construction.

The Center for Biological Diversity, one of several environmental groups that sued over the rule in December, hailed the decision in a statement Thursday.

“Allowing phosphogypsum in roads was a boneheaded, short-sighted favor to the industry,” Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “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.”