Federal lawmakers call for penalties for Tampa lead factory

Regulators, prompted by a Tampa Bay Times investigation, found that Gopher Resource ran afoul of environmental standards
Federal lawmakers say Gopher Resource should face penalties in the wake of a report that found toxic gasses reached life-threatening levels and contaminated dust covered the plant’s floor.
Federal lawmakers say Gopher Resource should face penalties in the wake of a report that found toxic gasses reached life-threatening levels and contaminated dust covered the plant’s floor. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 10, 2021

Two members of Congress say a Tampa lead factory must face serious repercussions in the wake of a damning report from regulators that confirmed dangerous conditions at the plant.

“It’s time now to move to the penalty phase,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, describing the report as “devastating.”

The Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission released the report on July 1, identifying more than two dozen possible environmental violations at Gopher Resource. The commission’s inquiry was prompted by a Tampa Bay Times investigation that revealed Gopher subjected hundreds of employees to high levels of lead and toxic gases.

Related: Read the investigation into the Tampa lead factory

Many of the Times’ major findings were confirmed in the report, including that Gopher failed to fix broken equipment and altered machinery in ways that increased worker exposure inside the plant.

“This level of neglect is unconscionable,” Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, said in a statement.

Castor said the findings give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Justice ample evidence to act. She promised to push the agencies to take further action. Crist pledged to seek justice for the workers.

“No employee should have to work in these types of conditions,” he said.

Justice Department officials declined to comment this week. The Environmental Protection Agency also would not comment, saying it doesn’t discuss ongoing or potential investigations.

In a statement, Gopher said it is continuing to review the commission’s report and is in compliance with federal air-quality standards.

“Gopher has consistently stated that it will cooperate with all local, state, and federal agencies that regulate its operations in its ongoing effort to improve the overall safety and environmental performance of its plant,” the statement said.

The commission’s 65-page report is the latest in a series of blows to Gopher. A former employee filed a lawsuit alleging the work environment harmed his young son; the company’s credit rating took a hit; and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has been investigating since April.

Castor said she planned to “keep pressing OSHA to complete their investigation and let us know what they’ve found.”

OSHA has not provided a timeline for when its inspection will be finished.

“We continue to assess this complex issue,” the U.S. Department of Labor said in a statement. “We are also considering appropriate actions to address worker health and safety in collaboration with employees at this facility and their union, the community and this employer to ensure workers are protected.”

Gopher said the company welcomes any recommendations from OSHA.

After the Times published its two-part investigation in March, Castor and Crist asked several federal agencies to launch inquiries. The Environmental Protection Agency delegated the investigation to the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, which regulates Gopher’s emissions in the neighborhood air and enforces federal air-quality standards.

The commission found toxic gasses reached life-threatening levels and contaminated dust covered the plant’s floor. It also found that Gopher had failed to fix mechanical problems and report equipment breakdowns to regulators.

Sterlin Woodard, the director of the commission’s air division who oversaw the investigation, said Gopher likely will face fines.

“We will work with any federal, state or local agency to ensure the public is protected and that any actions taken by Gopher are properly addressed,” Woodard said.

Gopher said it made improvements before the investigation began. Some of those changes were documented after the Times began asking questions of the company dating back to October 2020.

More than 300 people work at the plant, which is the only factory that produces lead in Florida. They reclaim the metal from used car batteries to make new blocks that are sold to battery and ammunition manufacturers.

A Times analysis of company data found that eight out of 10 workers from 2014 to 2018 had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of increased blood pressure, kidney dysfunction or cardiovascular disease.

In the past five years, at least 14 current and former workers have had heart attacks or strokes, some after working in the most contaminated areas of the plant, the Times found. And at least 16 children of factory workers were exposed to lead dust unknowingly carried home.

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.