Tampa lead factory ran afoul of environmental standards, report finds

The inquiry was spurred by a Tampa Bay Times investigation into hazardous conditions at the plant.
County regulators identified a host of problems at Gopher Resource in Tampa, including hazardous-liquid leaks and life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide.
County regulators identified a host of problems at Gopher Resource in Tampa, including hazardous-liquid leaks and life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 1, 2021|Updated July 2, 2021

Local regulators on Thursday flagged more than two dozen potential environmental violations at a Tampa lead factory, confirming several key findings of a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation.

The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission launched its inquiry into Gopher Resource in April after the Times series highlighted dangerous conditions inside the plant.

The agency’s 65-page report confirmed 15 of the newsroom’s findings, including that the company had removed exhaust hoods designed to capture noxious fumes.

Regulators also found evidence of hazardous-liquid leaks, lead-laced dust blanketing the plant floor and life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide in employee workspaces that had been detailed by the Times.

Under its air permit with the county, Gopher is required to report breakdowns in equipment that could affect the amount of emissions the company pumps into the neighborhood.

For years, Gopher didn’t do that, the commission found.

The release of the report is a first step that could result in fines or sanctions. Gopher will have an opportunity to respond, then the company and the regulators will likely work out an agreement to fix any problems.

Sterlin Woodard, who heads the commission’s air division and oversaw the investigation, said fines against the company are likely. He described the possible violations outlined in the report as being the highest level of concern for regulators.

In a statement late Thursday, Gopher said it had made a “substantial and continuing investment” in plant improvements and noted that it was in compliance with federal emission limitations.

“We are reviewing EPC’s detailed report and will work with them to implement any needed changes in our systems, processes and results,” the company said.

The Times’ two-part investigation found that the factory’s intricate ventilation system for years didn’t function correctly, and the company disabled or turned off key features meant to capture fumes in the workspace.

The failures left hundreds of workers exposed to high levels of poisons, the Times found.

Gopher knew dangerous levels of lead dust were accumulating inside the factory. But it failed to provide workers with adequate protection. The Times found that lead levels frequently exceeded the protection capabilities of respirators provided to workers in the most hazardous areas of the plant.

Related: Read the investigation: Hundreds of workers at a Tampa lead smelter have been exposed to dangerous levels of the neurotoxin. The consequences have been profound.

The commission’s report found that Gopher didn’t move quickly to fix problems in the plant that resulted in emissions spilling into work areas.

Regulators requested documents used in the newsroom’s investigation, including a 2017 consultant report that found numerous problems with the plant’s ventilation system. They confirmed that repairs recommended by the consultants were not completed until this past March.

The report also noted that as recently as January, sulfur dioxide levels in the wastewater treatment department of the plant reached life-threatening levels.

Workers at Gopher’s Tampa factory extract lead from about 50,000 old car batteries a day and melt it to create new blocks of the metal, which are sold mainly to companies that make new lead-acid batteries for cars.

Gopher completed construction on a new plant in 2012. Many of its mechanical systems were designed to both keep workers safe and ensure the company wouldn’t pollute the outside community. But there were troubles from the beginning.

The Environmental Protection Commission regulates Gopher’s emissions in the neighborhood air, enforcing federal air-quality standards for lead and other chemicals. Gopher is the only lead smelter in Florida, and the area around the plant is the only place in the state where regulators monitor the amount of lead in the air.

Gopher’s plant sits next to a CSX rail yard and inside a community of homes, auto-repair and tire shops and places of worship. It’s a half-mile from Kenly Elementary.

The Times’ investigation also prompted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to evaluate worker safety and exposure levels inside the factory.

That inspection, which began in early April, is ongoing.

News of OSHA’s regulatory probe spurred credit rating agencies to reassess Gopher’s standing. Last week, Moody’s Investors Service downgraded the company’s credit rating, which could make it harder and more expensive for Gopher to borrow money.

Financial experts described the downgrade as a serious blow to the company.

Gopher also faces a lawsuit from a former worker who says lead dust he unknowingly brought home harmed his infant son. The worker’s attorneys have suggested additional suits are forthcoming.

This story was updated to include a comment from Gopher.

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.

Gopher’s full response:

While the EPC report tries to validate various historical claims made by the Tampa Bay Times, it also confirms that Gopher has been and remains in compliance with applicable Clean Air Act emission limitations, and reflects the substantial and continuing investment Gopher has made in plant improvements.

We have a long-standing, strong, working relationship with EPC and continue to welcome its input on changes and improvements that would make Gopher’s performance even better. EPC has conducted more than 100 inspections of the Gopher facility, and we were pleased to work with EPC on this latest one. We are reviewing EPC’s detailed report and will work with them to implement any needed changes in our systems, processes and results.

EPC and Gopher share the same objective — ensuring that (the) public has a full picture of Gopher’s environmental compliance. To that end, we provided EPC with data, which show that Gopher’s particulate matter and lead emissions are very low — more than 50% below the emission limits that we are required to meet.

With respect to workplace conditions, we continue to cooperate with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and we look forward to any recommendations they may make to help enhance our current efforts to protect our employees. We remain confident in our workplace safety program, which has led to a sustained and consistent decrease in average blood lead levels since 2006.