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County will provide testing for neighbors of Florida’s lead smelter

Residents who live near Gopher Resource gather in Tampa to hear from county officials in wake of Times investigation.
Neighbors who live near Gopher Resource, Florida's only lead smelter, showed up for a community meeting at Kenly Park on Wednesday to hear from local leaders. Health officials say they will offer lead testing for local residents. Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Tampa.
Neighbors who live near Gopher Resource, Florida's only lead smelter, showed up for a community meeting at Kenly Park on Wednesday to hear from local leaders. Health officials say they will offer lead testing for local residents. Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 22
Updated Apr. 22

The Hillsborough County Health Department will provide testing to the community around Gopher Resource, a lead smelter operating near an elementary school in Tampa.

The announcement was made Wednesday evening during a town hall held at Kenly Park and organized by Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers. Dozens of community members, government officials and some workers gathered around the basketball court to hear from officials about the health effects of lead on children, ways to prevent exposure and the amount of lead in the community’s air.

The health department said testing for children will occur at the park on May 1 from 9 a.m. to noon.

Sterlin Woodard, head of the air division at the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, said that in recent years, Gopher has been in compliance with environmental regulations for the amount of lead allowed in the community’s air.

Director of air monitoring for the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission Sterlin Woodard speaks during a public meeting about lead poisoning and prevention for homes located near the Gopher Resources plant, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Tampa.
Director of air monitoring for the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission Sterlin Woodard speaks during a public meeting about lead poisoning and prevention for homes located near the Gopher Resources plant, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Officials fielded questions from community members about recent construction projects at Gopher and any possible environmental impact. They also were asked when regulatory probes underway at the factory would be completed. Officials couldn’t immediately answer either question.

Gopher issued a statement on Thursday saying a health department official recently told commissioners that community testing isn’t necessary given the low lead emissions.

“In fact, air quality around Gopher is 67 percent better than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s stringent standard,” the statement said.

The Wednesday meeting was prompted by a Tampa Bay Times investigation that found hundreds of Gopher workers were exposed to high amounts of toxic chemicals.

Myers said in preparation for the meeting, her staff sent fliers to the homes of children who attend Kenly Elementary, which is a half-mile from the factory. They also went door-to-door in the community to pass out information. (The Times has mailed the first two parts of the series to 2,000 homes near Gopher.)

Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers speaks during a public meeting about lead poisoning and prevention for homes located near the Gopher Resources plant, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Tampa.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers speaks during a public meeting about lead poisoning and prevention for homes located near the Gopher Resources plant, on Wednesday, April 21, 2021 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The plant in east Tampa sits next to a CSX rail yard and inside a community of homes, auto-repair and tire shops and places of worship.

The meeting is the latest development in the wake of the Times’ series.

Over the past several weeks, lawmakers called on federal regulators to move swiftly to inspect the plant and determine whether a threat from lead exposure extended to the broader community.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration began inspecting Gopher for the first time in five years and has remained at the factory for more than two weeks.

Local environmental regulators have now begun an inspection of their own. Attorneys have reached out to workers, including high-profile civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who represents the family of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Two credit rating agencies, meanwhile, are also paying attention. Both Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global in recent weeks cited the OSHA probe and health and safety allegations as grounds to assess, and possibly downgrade, Gopher’s credit rating, which could impact the company’s ability to borrow money.

“It’s a serious situation for the company,” said Nejat Seyhun, professor of finance at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business.

Gopher is a privately-held company that has been owned by Energy Capital Partners, a New Jersey-based private equity firm, since 2018. Gopher’s 2020 revenues were $360 million, according to Moody’s.

A 2018 Moody’s rating said Gopher planned to raise $490 million in senior secured debt.

Before the OSHA inspection, Gopher already had been deemed a substantial credit risk. Some of the perceived risk comes from operating a lead smelter, an enterprise that, in itself, comes with environmental risk and is expensive to run, according to the rating agencies and interviews with three finance experts. Additional risk comes from the debt Gopher has accumulated compared to its equity and the company’s structure: Gopher’s revenue depends on production from its two factories.

The company operates the Tampa plant, which is the only lead smelter in Florida, and another in Eagan, Minn., where Gopher is headquartered. Workers extract lead from used car batteries and melt it down in furnaces to create new blocks of metal to sell. About 300 people, many of whom are Black and immigrants, work at the company’s Tampa plant.

Most of the metal produced is used to make more lead-acid batteries for cars but it is also used for industrial power sources and ammunition. Only 10 such factories remain in the United States. Gopher is considered a leader in the lead-production market, where demand outpaced supply in recent years.

But in placing Gopher on credit watch, S&P Global noted a financial hit that the company took in 2020 because of COVID-19. The Tampa plant ceased production for several weeks last year because of the virus’ economic impact.

S&P Global cited Gopher’s financial position after 2020, including significant debt, and news reports in the Times detailing high employee lead exposures as reasons for its review. Moody’s identified the regulatory action only in an announcement, saying it will determine “the degree to which the outcome could result in adverse changes to Gopher’s credit profile.”

The credit ratings reflect Gopher’s predicted ability to make payments on its debt. A downgrade could result in higher interest rates for the company for future borrowing.

Finance experts said credit agencies will also watch for any potential litigation against the company, whether fines are levied by regulators and any costly repairs Gopher could be required to make.

“What we’re focusing on in this particular context would be if there is a significant regulatory action taken against Gopher Resource that either limits production, the ability of this plant to operate, imposes significant fines, raises the cost of health and safety precautions for workers that could really affect the bottom line,” said Jeffrey Manns, a law professor at George Washington University.

In 2006, Gopher bought the Tampa plant, at 6505 E. Jewel Ave. The factory had been part of the community, which is about 6 miles east of downtown, for roughly 60 years.

Gopher has invested more than $140 million to make the property safer, and in late 2012, opened a new, modernized factory. But despite upgrade efforts, the factory has had significant ventilation problems that have resulted in workers being exposed to high airborne levels of lead, some of which ascended to hundreds of times the federal limit and beyond the protection capability of employee respirators.

OSHA began its inspection of the plant on April 5. Before inspectors arrived, the company had been scrambling to prepare, cleaning up sludge-covered areas and installing a new floor in a battery-breaking room. The company fixed devices designed to blow contaminated dust off workers as they leave the plant and installed sticky mats to help capture dust from the soles of workers’ shoes. Weeks earlier, they’d made repairs to the factory’s long-troubled ventilation system.

OSHA inspectors have set up shop inside one of the factory’s offices along with regulators from the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.

Rebecca Woolington can be reached at rwoolington@tampabay.com. Corey G. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@tampabay.com. Eli Murray can be reached at emurray@tampabay.com. This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.