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Tampa’s Castor ask feds to scrutinize Tampa lead smelter

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor issue calls for action after the Tampa Bay Times investigation into dangerous practices at Gopher Resource factory.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor called this week’s Tampa Bay Times investigation into unsafe work conditions at Gopher Resource, LLC concerning. She has directed city staff to gather information from regulatory agencies that monitor the East Tampa plant.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor called this week’s Tampa Bay Times investigation into unsafe work conditions at Gopher Resource, LLC concerning. She has directed city staff to gather information from regulatory agencies that monitor the East Tampa plant. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 27

TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor called this week’s Tampa Bay Times investigation into unsafe work conditions at Gopher Resource concerning and has directed city staff to gather information from regulatory agencies that monitor the factory.

Related: Poisoned: Part 1 The Factory

In a statement late Thursday, the mayor said she supported U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat, in her efforts to update the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

Kathy Castor wrote a letter to federal Environmental Protection Agency Director Michael Regan on Friday asking for the agency to review the factory’s operations, saying the “disturbing” findings in the Times report indicated that the company put corporate profits above worker and community members’ safety. Gopher has declined interview requests but issued a statement and sent a memo to reporters in response to questions before the investigation published.

“In addition to the likely devastating harm of lead exposure to the workers and families, I also am concerned about potential harm to the community due to the plant operation. Clean air, water quality, and toxic substance safeguards may have been violated due to plant operations and the battery components – among them acid and lead imbued plastics,” Kathy Castor’s letter read.

Jane Castor echoed the congresswoman’s concerns.

“We must make sure that the appropriate safeguards are in place to protect the employees of the plant and their families,” the mayor said in a statement emailed late Thursday.

The first installment of Poisoned, the 18-month Times investigation that published online Wednesday, will appear in print as a special section Sunday.

The investigation found that Gopher had exposed workers for years to levels of lead in the air that were hundreds of times higher than the federal limit. At times, the concentration was considered life-threatening.

Among the investigation’s findings:

  • Eight out of 10 workers from 2014 to 2018 had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of increased blood pressure, kidney dysfunction or cardiovascular disease. In the past five years, at least 14 current and former workers have had heart attacks or strokes, some after working in the most contaminated areas of the plant. One employee spent more than three decades around the poison before dying of heart and kidney disease at 56.
  • Gopher knew its factory had too much lead dust, but the company disabled ventilation features that captured fumes and moved slowly to fix faulty mechanical systems. Workers were left vulnerable, wearing respirators that couldn’t protect them when poison levels spiked. In 2019, one employee faced an air-lead concentration 15 times beyond what his respirator could guard against.
  • Federal rules required that Gopher provide regular checkups, but the company-contracted doctor didn’t tell workers their blood-lead levels put them in danger. When employees had health problems that could be tied to lead exposure, he cleared them to work.
  • Gopher rewarded employees with bonuses if they kept the amount of lead in their blood down and punished those who couldn’t, a practice that alarmed medical experts and ethicists. Workers took desperate measures to strip metals from their bodies, including undergoing dangerous medical procedures. In the most extreme cases, some donated contaminated blood.
  • Dust from the plant has been the suspected cause of lead exposure in at least 16 children — the sons and daughters of employees who unwittingly carried the poison home in their cars or on the soles of their shoes. A baby girl tested so high for the neurotoxin that her pediatrician recommended she be monitored weekly.
  • Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulators haven’t inspected the factory for lead contamination since 2014 and missed critical problems in previous visits. Even when top regional safety officials ordered increased inspections of lead businesses across the Southeast, no one came to the only place in Florida that produces the metal.