Conservation and public-health groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency today to improve federal oversight of the radioactive waste produced by phosphogypsum facilities, including wastewater from phosphoric acid production.
Phosphogypsum and process wastewater from phosphogypsum facilities are currently excluded from certain federal hazardous waste regulations.
Today’s petition asks the EPA to begin overseeing the safe treatment, storage and disposal of phosphogypsum and process wastewater, as required under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Toxic Substances Control Act.
“Many people are living near vulnerable mountains of radioactive, toxic waste known as gypsum stacks without even knowing what they are, let alone the risks to environmental and public health they present,” said Brooks Armstrong, of People for Protecting Peace River. “People living near phosphogypsum stacks, downstream communities, the wider public and wildlife depend on a drinking water supply which flows under these stacks. We deserve maximum protection from these gypsum stacks by our EPA. As of now, we are getting virtually none.”
Phosphogypsum is the radioactive waste from processing phosphate ore into phosphoric acid, which is predominantly used in fertilizer. Radium-226, found in phosphogypsum, has a 1,600-year radioactive decay half-life. In addition to high concentrations of radioactive materials, phosphogypsum and process wastewater can also contain carcinogens and heavy toxic metals like antimony, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, fluoride, lead, mercury, nickel, silver, sulfur, thallium and zinc.
“These towering stacks of radioactive waste continue to pose an unacceptable risk to the environment and nearby communities,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “They’re prone to massive sinkholes and spills that put our groundwater and recreational waters at risk and threaten public health. The EPA must face the facts and act quickly to avert the next environmental disaster.”
For every ton of phosphoric acid produced, the fertilizer industry creates five tons of radioactive phosphogypsum waste, which is stored in mountainous stacks hundreds of acres wide and hundreds of feet tall. More than 1 billion tons of the radioactive waste have already been stored in 25 stacks scattered throughout Florida. The stacks are perched precariously atop the Floridan aquifer, which supplies drinking water to 10 million people.
“EPA knows from decades of mining disasters that storing radioactive and carcinogenic mining waste in enormous open-air piles over groundwater aquifers poses an imminent danger to human health and the environment,” said Daniel E. Estrin, general counsel and advocacy director for Waterkeeper Alliance. “These dangerous ‘gypstack’ eyesores are often hundreds of feet high and cover hundreds of acres of land. We are counting on EPA to do its job and protect people and wildlife from this ticking time bomb before the next foreseeable disaster.”
The phosphogypsum stacks are also in Arkansas, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Texas, Utah and Wyoming. The EPA recently approved using this radioactive waste in road construction.
“Phosphogypsum has the potential to sicken Floridians. To continue down this path for the benefit of fertilizer industry is cruel and misguided,” said Michael Roth, president of Our Santa Fe River.
“WWALS opposes expansion of the decades-old moonscape of a phosphate mine in Hamilton County, and another proposed in Union and Bradford Counties,” said John S. Quarterman, Suwannee Riverkeeper. “These mines not only suck up massive amounts of water that reduce spring and river flows, they feed ever-growing phosphogypsum stacks with radioactive waste.”
Today’s petition was filed by Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Bayou City Waterkeeper, Center for Biological Diversity, The Cherokee Concerned Citizens, Healthy Gulf, ManaSota-88, Our Santa Fe River, People for Protecting Peace River, RISE St. James, Sierra Club’s Florida and Delta chapters, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Waterkeepers Florida, which includes all 14 of Florida’s waterkeeper groups.
The petition asks the EPA, under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and Toxic Substances Control Act, to:
- Reverse its 1991 regulatory determination that excludes phosphogypsum and process wastewater from hazardous waste regulations;
- Govern the safe treatment, storage and disposal of phosphogypsum and process wastewater as hazardous wastes;
- Initiate the process for designating phosphogypsum and process wastewater as high-priority substances for risk evaluation;
- Require manufacturers to conduct testing on phosphogypsum and process wastewater; and
- Determine that the use of phosphogypsum in road construction is a significant new use that requires a determination on whether it is safe.
Learn more about phosphogypsum and efforts to protect the public health and environment from its harms.
About The Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
The Cherokee Concerned Citizens is a fenceline community organized to protect the health and well-being of our families and neighbors from exposure to industrial pollution.
Healthy Gulf’s purpose is to collaborate with and serve communities who love the Gulf of Mexico by providing the research, communications, and coalition-building tools needed to reverse the long pattern of over exploitation of the Gulf’s natural resources.
About ManaSota-88, Inc.
ManaSota-88, Inc. is a public interest conservation and environmental protection organization, which is a Florida not-for-profit corporation and a citizen of the State of Florida. The corporate purposes of ManaSota-88 include the protection of the public’s health, the preservation of air and water quality, and the protection of wildlife habitat.
People for Protecting Peace River is a grassroots conservation organization based in Central Florida dedicated to defending the rural lands, waters and communities of Florida’s heartland and beyond from the devastating environmental harms of the phosphate fertilizer industry.
About RISE St. James
RISE St. James is a nonprofit, grassroots, faith-based organization formed to advocate for racial and environmental justice in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
About Sierra Club
The mission of the Sierra Club is to explore, enjoy and protect the planet. To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems and resources; to educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out those objectives.
About Waterkeeper Alliance
Waterkeeper Alliance is a global movement uniting more than 350 Waterkeeper groups around the world, focusing citizen action on issues that affect our waterways, from pollution to climate change. The Waterkeeper movement patrols and protects over 2.75 million square miles of rivers, lakes, and coastlines in the Americas, Europe, Australia, Asia, and Africa. For more information, visit www.waterkeeper.org
About Waterkeepers Florida
Waterkeepers Florida is a regional entity composed of all 14 Waterkeeper organizations working in the state of Florida to protect and restore our water resources across over 45,000 square miles of watershed which is home to over 15 million Floridians. For more information, visit www.WaterkeepersFlorida.org
About WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc. (WWALS)
WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc. (WWALS) advocates for conservation and stewardship of the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little, Santa Fe, and Suwannee River watersheds in south Georgia and north Florida through education, awareness, environmental monitoring, and citizen activities. Suwannee Riverkeeper is a staff position and a project of WWALS as the member of Waterkeeper Alliance for the Suwannee River Basin.