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Florida’s only lead factory finds itself in damage-control mode

Gopher Resource had been working to clean up and fix problems before inspectors arrived. After a five-year absence, regulators finally showed up.
Photos taken by workers at Gopher Resource in Tampa show a factory plagued with problems.
Photos taken by workers at Gopher Resource in Tampa show a factory plagued with problems. [ Gopher workers ]
Published Apr. 10
Updated Apr. 12

Federal safety regulators descended on the Gopher Resource lead smelter in Tampa, reviewing company documents, collecting dust samples and hooking up workers to monitoring devices so that air quality could be measured. Inspectors arrived Monday and stayed all week.

They combed through the plant, where hundreds of workers have been exposed to high levels of the neurotoxin and other chemicals.

For weeks, Gopher’s leaders had been preparing, factory workers said.

The company made repairs to the plant’s troubled ventilation system, attempting to fix long-standing issues that increased the amount of lead in the air, according to interviews with four workers and photographs shared with the Tampa Bay Times.

Gopher fixed malfunctioning devices designed to blow lead dust off workers as they exited some of the most contaminated areas of the plant. It put down sticky mats to pull particles from the soles of workers’ shoes as they left the dusty factory to head home after their shifts.

And just days before inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration arrived, the company had begun another endeavor: replacing the sludge-covered floor where batteries are cracked open to salvage the lead inside.

The recent improvements came after the Times started asking Gopher executives about employee exposures and mechanical problems late last year. Work intensified, several workers said, as the Times neared completion of an 18-month investigation and after publication of its two-part series. The repairs included tearing out lead-clogged ventilation pipes that workers said had rarely been cleaned.

OSHA’s inspection followed mounting calls for government action in response to the newsroom’s investigation, which detailed dangerous conditions inside the factory that spanned years and went unnoticed by regulators.

Before this week, OSHA inspectors hadn’t set foot in the plant in five years.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, had written to Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh requesting a prompt inspection. The representatives also asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate Gopher, calling details in the Times’ series “chilling.”

When asked about a possible inquiry or involvement in the inspection, Justice Department officials declined to comment.

Castor also has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the plant’s operations. The EPA regional office in Atlanta contacted the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission about its recent inspection files.

After Walsh received the letter, OSHA pledged to work with Gopher and its employees to ensure conditions inside the lead smelter are safe. The agency didn’t elaborate and hasn’t released details about its activity at the plant.

Related: Read the Times' 18-month investigation Poisoned

Workers told the Times that if inspectors had arrived even a few days earlier, they would have seen dramatic differences in parts of the factory.

A dust explosion in the furnace had severely damaged equipment and piping, prompting a temporary work shutdown. The battery-crushing operation had been leaking sludge for at least eight months, forming a layer of contaminated muck that was inches deep in some spots, according to interviews and photographs taken and shared with the Times last week. A photograph the day OSHA walked through the area showed a far cleaner floor, with only remnants and streaks of mud, a shovel propped against a wall.

Plastic battery shells sit in acid-soaked, lead-laced mud below the battery breaking equipment inside Gopher Resource. This photo was taken in 2021.
Plastic battery shells sit in acid-soaked, lead-laced mud below the battery breaking equipment inside Gopher Resource. This photo was taken in 2021. [ Gopher worker ]
This is the same general area at the Gopher Resource factory. This photo was taken the day federal regulators walked through the area. The floor was far more visible.
This is the same general area at the Gopher Resource factory. This photo was taken the day federal regulators walked through the area. The floor was far more visible. [ Gopher worker ]

Kawahon Duncan, a furnace worker and president of Gopher’s employee union, said company leaders were well aware of the problems but didn’t make them a priority until outside attention came.

“They’ve had numerous occasions where they could have rectified these issues. And they did nothing,” Duncan said. “Safety is not their number one priority. They say it is, but it is not because their actions don’t back it up.”

When Gopher had advance notice before previous OSHA site visits, the company carefully prepared by cleaning, directing only supervisors to speak with inspectors and mapping out the inspector’s route through the plant.

Related: View dozens of photos and videos captured by workers inside the factory

Kevin Merrill, a former refining supervisor who left Gopher last year, said the company always launched efforts to minimize problems before regulators arrived and would craft specific plans for department supervisors to carry out. Cleaning tasks and painting would be required, he said, and employees would be coached on how to answer questions should they be approached.

“Gopher’s going to do whatever it takes to keep running,” Merrill said. “By any means necessary.”

During those previous visits, inspectors made critical errors, measuring the wrong chemical when workers complained of high gas exposure during one instance and missing sky-high levels of lead in the air during another. One inspector was sent for each visit.

On Monday, at least five regulators arrived at Gopher’s sprawling 300,000 square-foot facility, according to four workers who had knowledge of the inspection. They looked at documents and the company’s supply of respirators in the front office before heading into the factory. Regulators returned on Tuesday and hooked workers up for air-monitoring and used dust wipes to collect samples from computer and break rooms.

Despite the company’s efforts to ready for an anticipated inspection, six workers told the Times that within the past several weeks, areas of the plant had remained in disarray. They sent photographs documenting the problems.

A key device that helps control sulfur dioxide had malfunctioned, leaking hazardous liquid in the area where wastewater is treated. Lead-laced dust covered the floor in the furnace department, and the lead sludge caking the ground where old batteries are broken down sat next to pools of what workers identified as acid that had been drained from the batteries.

Gopher did not answer specific questions related to cleanup efforts, repairs or the timing of the work.

In a statement, the company said it spends tens of millions of dollars on improvements each year and that the ones made over the past several weeks weren’t prompted by the newsroom’s investigation or any impending visit from regulators.

“The recent safety and facility upgrades we have implemented were undertaken despite the flawed reporting of the Times, and not because of either it or the expected OSHA inspection,” the company said.

“Additional steps have also been planned and are upcoming,” the company’s statement continued. “Together with our employees, we will continue to look for ways to further enhance safety.”

Gopher, which has declined multiple interview requests, did not say what part of the Times’ reporting was flawed. But the company did acknowledge it had room for improvement.

Problems inside the factory

After the Times first contacted Gopher with questions about safety last October, the company began working to reassure its roughly 320 Tampa employees.

Since the spotlight on the company has intensified, Gopher Resource CEO Brian Leen and other executives flew in from headquarters in Minnesota. They’ve hired a lawyer from Washington, D.C., and they’ve met with employees, asking some to go on-camera and record statements of support.

Workers who spoke to the Times this week requested anonymity because they feared the company would retaliate. They sent dozens of photographs and videos taken in recent weeks documenting issues at the factory.

Many of the workers are Black or immigrants, or have criminal histories that could make finding another job, especially one that pays well, difficult.

Duncan, the union president, said Gopher supervisors have been asked to find out who provided photos and videos to reporters.

“They don’t want people to know what is going on inside,” Duncan said. “But folks have been taking their phones inside to capture problems so the world can see. And because staff has been defiant, we have a story today that could potentially better our future and our health and well-being.”

In a company-wide email, Leen wrote that Gopher advised workers to not speak to reporters and to be cognizant of their social media activity.

In November, Gopher mailed letters to workers, highlighting upgrades to the factory and a decline in average blood-lead levels under the company’s ownership. Earlier this year, Gopher held meetings with employees and described the company’s progress and the upcoming Times investigation. Over the past two weeks, those discussions were replaced by closed-door meetings among executives, three employees said.

The Times investigation found that Gopher employees were exposed to high levels of lead and other toxic chemicals as they recycled used car batteries. Lead is extracted from the batteries, melted in furnaces, purified in a refinery and poured into molds to create new blocks of metal.

About 50,000 batteries can be recycled every day at the plant. The lead is sold to companies like battery and ammunition manufacturers.

The factory is the only lead smelter in Florida and one of 10 such factories in the United States, including a second owned by Gopher in Eagan, Minn.

The Tampa plant has been at its current site, about 6 miles east of downtown, for about six decades. In 2006, Gopher bought the factory, which company executives described as “distressed” when they took it over. Gopher invested hundreds of millions of dollars to build a new factory, enclosing the previously open-air operation. But problems with the ventilation system began almost immediately.

Those issues coupled with other equipment failures have resulted in high levels of lead and other chemicals, including sulfur dioxide, spilling into the workspace. The problems were documented by consultants and the company for years.

Air-lead levels regularly soared hundreds of times above the federal limit in the furnace department, and life-threatening levels of gases were measured at least three times in the past four years. Many workers had company-issued respirators that weren’t strong enough to protect them from spiking poison levels.

A Times analysis of blood-lead tests taken by workers over a recent four-year period found that most had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of serious health problems, including high blood pressure, kidney damage and cardiovascular disease.

At least 14 current and former workers suffered heart attacks, cardiac arrests or strokes in the past five years. All of them were younger than 60. Three were under 45. One worker died of heart and kidney disease at 56 after working more than three decades at the plant.

In multiple statements to the Times, Gopher has said that since acquiring the plant, the company has cut average blood-lead levels in half. The company has said that the average across workers is a fraction of what is allowed under federal rules. It hasn’t provided a specific number, but a chart it shared in February showed the average above 10 micrograms per deciliter and below 15.

Those levels still are dangerous when exposure is chronic.

Fixes underway

Earlier this year, Gopher started making improvements to its long-troubled ventilation system and added other upgrades designed to limit worker exposure.

In February, the company tore out old ductwork in the furnace department, where some dust-clogged pipes were replaced with new ones.

Three months earlier, the Times had approached the company about mechanical problems at the plant and high employee exposure levels. Days before the work, reporters had sent Gopher summarized findings about life-threatening levels of lead and sulfur dioxide measured inside the factory.

The company also replaced exhaust hoods, designed to capture fumes from the furnaces.

Four years ago, consultants had found that Gopher had removed some hoods on the furnaces and others were too small, allowing fumes to billow into the workspace. Gopher did not answer questions about whether the hoods replaced weeks ago were the same ones identified as a problem in 2017.

The consultants at the time had sent the company recommendations for repairs that correspond to those made in February. And the ventilation upgrades had been on the company’s project list for years, according to an employee with direct knowledge of the list.

Even with the upgrades, fumes have spilled out from the furnace in recent weeks, three workers said.

Just last week, Gopher made additional improvements.

It fixed the chronically troubled air shower system, which blows air from devices that look like hot-tub jets to dust off workers as they leave the furnace and refinery departments, three workers said. And the company added the sticky mats inside the hygiene building, which is where workers eat lunch and change in locker rooms before and after their shifts.

On Monday, as regulators arrived, the company had shut down some work where batteries are broken down. The area was known for having contaminated mud spread thick across the floor and being slippery from puddles of acid.

Special programs designed to better protect lead workers should have brought regulators to the plant sooner. The Times identified hundreds of blood-lead tests of individual workers that were supposed to prompt an inspection under the initiative. OSHA had been unaware of them.

Before Monday, the last time OSHA came to the plant was June 2016.

Since then, Gopher or consultants it hired documented more than two dozen possible violations, mostly related to air-lead levels and inadequate respiratory protection, the Times found. The company also documented sulfur dioxide levels surpassing the maximum capability of the devices.

Clusters of lead-containing rock pile up in front of a door at Gopher Resource in this April 2021 photo. A broom sits next to the pile. OSHA discourages the use of brooms and shovels to clean floors because they can kick up dust into the air. The preferred method is to use a vacuum with appropriate filters to suck up the dust.
Clusters of lead-containing rock pile up in front of a door at Gopher Resource in this April 2021 photo. A broom sits next to the pile. OSHA discourages the use of brooms and shovels to clean floors because they can kick up dust into the air. The preferred method is to use a vacuum with appropriate filters to suck up the dust. [ Gopher worker ]

Hours before OSHA entered the plant, a worker snapped photos of an ashy haze spread across the containment room, where lead material is stored to be loaded in furnaces. Another photograph captured lead-containing rocks, produced as a byproduct when the lead is smelted, spilling out from a room in front of a dust-covered doorway. A broom was propped beside it.

When OSHA inspectors made their way to the battery breaking area, the floor beneath the operation, just days earlier covered in sludge and debris, was wet but far cleaner after workers shoveled the contaminated gunk over the weekend, according to interviews and photos taken before and after.

Corey G. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@tampabay.com. Rebecca Woolington can be reached at rwoolington@tampabay.com. Eli Murray can be reached at emurray@tampabay.com