Two U.S. representatives on Thursday called on the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into Gopher Resource, a Tampa lead smelter where hundreds of workers have been exposed to extreme amounts of the neurotoxin and other toxic substances.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, requested the Department of Justice focus on possible health and safety violations detailed in a Tampa Bay Times series.
The letter written to Jean Williams, the acting assistant attorney general who heads the environmental and natural resources division, came about 24 hours after the two lawmakers had urged the U.S. Department of Labor to review and inspect the Tampa factory.
“The Times report details horrific working conditions in which Gopher Resource employees were exposed to lead levels hundreds of times higher than the federal limit,” the letter co-written by the representatives states.
“These reports in the Times are chilling, especially considering the impacted workers are disproportionately immigrants, people of color and veterans,” Castor and Crist wrote.
Gopher officials could not be reached for comment late Thursday.
The two-part Poisoned series showed how workers are exposed to chemical threats inside the factory in east Tampa.
At the factory, workers break open used car batteries to extract the lead, melt it in furnaces and create new blocks of metal. About 50,000 batteries are recycled at the plant every day. The metal produced by Gopher is later sold to other companies, including battery and ammunition manufacturers.
During the course of their jobs, workers have been covered in lead-laced dust and burned by molten metal. They’ve also inhaled the poisonous dust and fumes, and most have had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of health problems, including high blood pressure, kidney dysfunction and cardiovascular disease. Some workers have unwittingly carried lead dust home, exposing their children.
Gopher assigned bonuses to workers based on the amount of lead in their blood, giving workers with lower levels more money. Some workers then took desperate measures to lower their levels, including undergoing dangerous medical treatments and even donating contaminated blood.
Problems with the plant’s ventilation system and other equipment failures have resulted in higher levels of lead and other chemicals in the plant’s air. The company issued respiratory equipment to its employees, but many of them were assigned devices that weren’t strong enough to protect them when poison levels spiked.
“The Tampa Bay Times report makes it clear that Gopher Resource placed its employees at extreme risk and fostered not only a physically toxic work environment, but an emotionally toxic work environment as well,” the letter from Castor and Crist says.
The letter notes that the company offers a good wage and employs people with criminal history. Workers at the factory earn around $20 an hour, and many said they stayed at the factory because of the pay.
“It appears that Gopher may have taken advantage of its workers who did not have other options, while shirking the company’s responsibility to keep them safe,” it says.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration hasn’t inspected the factory — the lone lead smelter in Florida — in five years.
In response to calls for action from Castor and Crist, 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.
Gopher told the Times Wednesday that the company welcomes an OSHA inspection.
The first part of the Poisoned project published last week. The second part posted online on Monday and will run in the newspaper on Sunday.