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Castor and Crist call for expedited OSHA review of Tampa lead smelter

In the wake of a Tampa Bay Times investigation, local representatives urge fast action.
A worker inside Gopher Resource passes through a cloud of dust laced with the neurotoxin lead. The factory recycles 50,000 used car batteries a day. It is the only factory of its kind in Florida.
A worker inside Gopher Resource passes through a cloud of dust laced with the neurotoxin lead. The factory recycles 50,000 used car batteries a day. It is the only factory of its kind in Florida. [ Photo from a factory worker (2019) ]
Published Mar. 31
Updated Mar. 31

Two U.S. representatives have called for an expedited review and inspection of the Gopher Resource lead smelter in Tampa, a factory where hundreds of workers have been exposed over the past decade to high levels of lead and other toxic chemicals.

Responding to a series of stories in the Tampa Bay Times that detailed conditions inside the factory, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, co-signed a letter Wednesday to U.S. Secretary of Labor Martin J. Walsh.

Castor and Crist urged the labor department to take fast action, adding that “if the plant cannot operate safely, then it should not operate at all.”

“We are also concerned with the apparent lack of workplace protections afforded to Gopher employees,” the letter states.

The representatives further requested that Gopher employees receive testing for any health issues that could be tied to work exposure.

In the two-part series Poisoned, Times reporters found that workers inside the factory have been issued respirators that aren’t strong enough to protect them when poison levels spiked.

Workers have inhaled the neurotoxin lead and also been burned by it. Some have passed out after becoming overwhelmed by dangerous gases, like sulfur dioxide.

The first part of the 18-month investigation, published last week, showed that most Gopher workers have had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of health problems, including high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction and cardiovascular disease.

The second part, published online Monday, outlined how the company and regulators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration let toxic conditions at the factory linger over the past decade.

OSHA officials released a statement to the Times on Wednesday, saying the agency will work with Gopher and employees to make sure conditions at the factory are safe.

“The agency is concerned with the occupational health and safety issues raised through this reporting,” the statement said. “We are looking into this issue and considering options to address worker health and safety at the Gopher facility.”

After the lawmakers sent their letter, Gopher’s Chief Operating Officer Eric Robinson issued a statement, saying the company has reduced average employee blood-lead levels by 50 percent since buying the plant in 2006 and has made improvements to the work environment.

“We welcome any inspection that OSHA may initiate and look forward to providing our full cooperation,” he said.

Workers recycle about 50,000 used car batteries at the east Tampa factory every day. The lead is extracted from the batteries, melted in furnaces that operate at about 1,500 degrees and turned into new blocks of metal that the company then sells.

Gopher’s plant is the only lead smelter in Florida and one of 10 factories of its kind across the United States.

The Times found that OSHA has not inspected the smelter in five years. When inspectors did show up, they made critical errors and missed violations.

“This total lack of concern for workers through faulty inspections from an agency that we all depend on to keep us safe demands ... accountability,” Castor and Crist wrote.

Wednesday’s letter comes on the heels of another sent last week by Castor to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asking for a swift review of the plant’s operations.

Below is the full statement provided by Gopher Resource Chief Operating Officer Eric Robinson:

Protecting our Tampa employees and the surrounding community is a core value of Gopher Resource and its workforce. Since 2006, we have invested more than $230 million to modernize the Tampa facility, which included installation of state-of-the-art pollution control, and health and safety measures including filtration and ventilation that are more stringent than regulatory standards.

As a result of these efforts, average blood lead levels among our Tampa employees are half what they were when Gopher acquired the plant in 2006, and less than half the level of many state and federal standards for workplace safety, as well as the American College of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH). And we continue to make improvements.

We welcome any inspection that OSHA may initiate and look forward to providing our full cooperation.