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Florida leaders consider using a radioactive material to build roads

Mosaic's Bartow gypstack looms just over 500 feet above the surrounding landscape, resembling a small mountain.
Daylina Miller
Mosaic's Bartow gypstack looms just over 500 feet above the surrounding landscape, resembling a small mountain.

Florida is home to 24 very large mounds that look like giant piles of sand or dirt. They’re all over the state but primarily in central and south Florida. You may have seen one, not knowing it’s a phosphogypsum (PG) stack.

PG is a radioactive, solid waste byproduct, and the House has approved a bill to study whether Florida could use it in road construction. PG is created during the manufacturing of phosphate, which is commonly used in fertilizer.

"I understand the public interest in trying to explore alternatives for the use of such material," said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. "But I am concerned that our approach is one that does not take in consideration health risks.”

Eskamani voted no on the bill, saying she doesn't support "radioactive roads."

"My concern is that we are creating an environment where especially our workers could be exposed to toxic materials," she said, "that we don't feel the impact today, but we could feel it 5, 10, 15 years down the road.”

PG can be used only in limited circumstances due to concerns about its environmental impact. The proposed legislation requires the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) to evaluate the potential for using PG in road construction materials.

"That better be a study that is conducted in our state, with our agencies, with all of the relevant agencies, with material from this state, and with this body’s review after the fact," said Rep. Lindsay Cross, D-St. Petersburg. "Well members, the bill as written does not do that.”

The bill requires DOT to conduct a study - or - DOT can use prior studies to determine PG’s road suitability.

"If we as a body are seriously contemplating using radioactive material that pollutes our water and endangers human health, to be placed potentially in neighborhoods, near our schools and near our homes, then we better be darn sure that we know it's safe,” Cross said.

“You know, we can absolutely stick our head in the sand, and we can clean up these phosphogypsum stacks, and literally the way to clean them up is to put them in a stack,” said Rep. Toby Overdorf, R-Stuart. He told House members those two dozen stacks can sit as they are forever, or lawmakers can look for an alternative. He says that’s the point of the bill sponsored by Dover Republican Rep. Lawrence McClure, R-Dover.

“Representative McClure decides to think outside the box a little bit and says, 'Hey, maybe there's some way we can actually use this stuff. Maybe we don't have it sitting in a stack waiting for it to cause a disaster like we saw at Piney Point. Maybe there's a better way to do it,'” Overdorf said.

Piney Point is a phosphate-processing facility in Manatee County that shut down in 2001. It’s been 2 years since 215 million gallons of wastewater was pumped into Tampa Bay to halt a leak at Piney Point.

For those concerned about environmental issues, Rep. McClure reminded them his bill focuses on a study to determine whether the state should consider moving forward with using phosphogypsum when roads are built – and putting a dent in some of those stacks.

"It asks us to contemplate what we can do with this material in a more responsible manner," McClure said, "and guess what? If the study yields results that aren't in the best interest of Florida, then we're not going to use the material.”

A companion bill is ready for consideration by the full Senate. The proposal gives DOT until early next year to finish its evaluation. If PG is deemed safe for road construction, the state will need approval from the U-S Environmental Protection Agency.

Gina Jordan is the host of Morning Edition for WFSU News. Gina is a Tallahassee native and graduate of Florida State University. She spent 15 years working in news/talk and country radio in Orlando before becoming a reporter and All Things Considered host for WFSU in 2008. Follow Gina: @hearyourthought on Twitter. Click below for Gina's full bio.