Touring the Scenic Phosphogypsum ‘Alps’ of Pasadena

Phosphogypsum Hill Near South Phosphogypsum Stack Complex, Pasadena, Texas

Cite magazine editor Raj Mankad leads readers on a brief photo tour of “one of the most mind-boggling sites in the Houston area.” Hills, in Pasadena! ”Many of the slopes are planted with grass,” he writes. “On one visit several years ago, I saw a horse grazing at the base of one. If I squinted, I could imagine myself in Montana, if not the Alps.

Better than a waiting-for-snow ski resort, though, these landforms north of Hwy. 225 inside Beltway 8 east of Red Bluff Rd. on the south side of the Houston Ship Channel are made of phosphogypsum. Phosphogypsum is a byproduct of the production of phosphate fertilizers, which took place on the site between 1960 and 2011, under the successive stewardship of a series of companies including ExxonMobil and Agrifos. Why was all this gypsum kept in mountainous piles instead of stuffed into wallboards or something? Well, the EPA doesn’t allow that if the material is too radioactive, which phosphogypsum generally is. So the glowy stuff has to be stored somewhere.

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Phosphogypsum Hill Near South Phosphogypsum Stack Complex, Pasadena, Texas

Formerly called the South Phosphogypsum Stack Complex, the 85-acre Pasadena site that created the giant phosphogypsum hills was converted to produce ammonium sulfate in 2011. That production process doesn’t make mountains. Meanwhile, a consent order worked out between ExxonMobil and environmental agencies required the oil company to manage and fund the “closure” of the phosphogypsum stacks. The facility is now owned by Rentech Nitrogen.

Photos: Raj Mankad and Tom Colbert

There’s Glow in Them Thar Hills

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