A former lead smelter worker has filed suit against Gopher Resource on behalf of his young son alleging that the company’s dangerous and dusty work environment resulted in the boy being exposed to the neurotoxin.
Plaintiff Ko Brown and his wife, Tomika, allege that Gopher failed to prevent him from carrying toxic dust home and exposing his son, Colin, who was an infant when he first recorded a blood-lead level. Colin has suffered disability and emotional distress because of his exposure, according to the lawsuit.
Brown and his family gathered in front of the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa on Wednesday for a morning press conference to announce the filing along with a group of attorneys, including Benjamin Crump.
Crump is a high-profile civil rights attorney who also represents the family of George Floyd, a Black man whose murder by a white Minneapolis police officer last year prompted a racial reckoning across America. During the press conference, Brown detailed some of the work conditions inside the plant, including ventilation problems and inadequate respiratory protection, while his wife described the toll that lead exposure has taken on their family.
Brown’s family is the first to file a lawsuit, but Crump and his co-counsel said they expect more filings to come and that they are representing more than 100 workers. The suit does not say how much the family is seeking in damages.
“We believe that Gopher Resource exploited their workers in exposing them to these unhealthy conditions,” Crump told reporters. “They knew the ventilation was not appropriate but they did not correct it. So we have to speak to these issues and that’s what we are bringing forth in this lawsuit.”
In a statement, Gopher said the company is dedicated to keeping workers and their families safe, citing the more than $200 million the company has spent to modernize the Tampa factory and the decline in average worker blood-lead levels over the past 15 years. Gopher did not comment specifically on the content of the lawsuit, saying the company has not yet been served and citing a policy of not discussing pending litigation.
Gopher recently created a website, called “gophertampafacts.com,” that highlights improvements the company has made and information about the lead-acid battery recycling process.
The lawsuit is the latest fallout after a Tampa Bay Times investigation published in March found that hundreds of workers at Gopher were exposed to dangerous levels of lead and other chemicals.
Air-lead readings inside some parts of the plant were regularly hundreds of times the federal limit, and many workers wore respirators that weren’t strong enough to adequately protect them.
Most Gopher workers had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of serious health problems, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and kidney problems. The Times’ investigation also found that dust from the plant was the suspected source of lead exposure in at least 16 children of workers who unknowingly brought the poison home in their cars or on their shoes. Colin Brown was one of the 16 children who had lead in his blood.
Ko Brown and his family embodied many of the issues detailed in the Times investigation. He was featured in a video that detailed his experiences at the factory. He worked his way up to a supervisor position after participating in dangerous medical treatments to extract metals from his body. Brown, who worked at Gopher for six years, said he needed to lower his blood-lead levels to qualify for the promotion. He also said that it was nearly impossible to leave the plant without taking some of the lead dust home.
Colin had blood-lead levels consistently hovering around 9 micrograms per deciliter when he turned 2 and 3 and while his dad supervised a shift in the furnace department. As a toddler, he was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. No level of lead is safe in children, whose developing brains and bodies are most susceptible to the neurotoxin.
It was only after Ko Brown left Gopher in 2017 that Colin’s blood-lead levels started to come down.
Colin, now 7, attended Wednesday’s press conference with his parents, wearing headphones, jeans and a red T-shirt and clutching a squirrel stuffed animal. In recent months, Colin has suffered from seizures, and his mom told reporters that these episodes have occurred frequently over the past couple of days.
After the newsroom’s two-part series published, federal regulators with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration began an inspection of the plant for the first time in five years. Their inquiry, which started April 5, is ongoing. The regulatory agency has had inspectors at the factory for nearly two months.
More than 300 people work at the plant, many of them Black or immigrants or with criminal histories that could make finding another well-paying job difficult. They recycle roughly 50,000 lead-acid car batteries a day by breaking them open, removing the lead and melting it in furnaces to create new blocks of metal.
The plant is the only lead smelter in Florida and one of only 10 such factories in the country.
Gopher has operated a second smelter in Eagan, Minn., where the company is headquartered, for 75 years and has owned the Tampa factory since 2006.
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.