A Tampa lead factory will face increased government scrutiny after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found it took steps to limit pollution when it knew environmental regulators were watching.
Regulators are now doubling the number of air samples they take around Gopher Resource’s lead smelter and testing on a new, randomized schedule, the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission told the Times this week.
For years, regulators have tested on a schedule that is set months in advance and published publicly by the federal government.
The Times’ investigation showed Gopher knew exactly when testing would take place and marked the days on company calendars. Current and former workers said they were given special instructions on those days meant to limit the amount of lead escaping in the air.
The new monitoring schedule makes Hillsborough County the only place in the nation performing randomized air sampling around a lead smelter, officials said. They anticipate starting next week.
Sterlin Woodard, who headed the county’s air division before taking a new role within the agency last month, said the approach could set a new precedent — and potentially prompt sweeping changes to the way the lead smelting industry is regulated across the country.
“I think it’s a good thing,” Woodard said.
Woodard said the county had launched an inquiry into Gopher’s actions that would include a review of the company’s internal records.
He also said the county had been in touch with Gopher about a high lead reading in November, as well as a yellow-orange cloud seen billowing from one of the factory’s stacks on Monday.
In a statement to the Times on Friday, Gopher said the company had not been made aware of the changes to the testing schedule but was confident in its compliance efforts and would cooperate with any changes.
“We are fully cooperative, transparent, and act with the utmost integrity in all our interactions with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission,” the company said.
The company called last month’s high lead result an “anomaly” and noted the average reading over the past three months was low.
Gopher’s factory is the only lead smelter in Florida and one of 10 such factories in the U.S.
Workers recycle lead from old car batteries by extracting the metal, melting it in furnaces and creating new blocks to sell.
The Times’ investigation showed the Tampa plant has cumulatively released more lead into the air than any other factory in Florida since 2000. The plant is in a neighborhood that includes single-family homes and is a half-mile from Kenly Elementary School.
Gopher bought the smelter 15 years ago and promised to improve its environmental record. But even after building a new plant, the company kept polluting. It pumped high levels of lead and gases into the air and discharged contaminant-laden water into the city sewer system and Palm River.
One lead expert likened the company’s efforts to reduce emissions on monitoring days to “cooking the books.” He and other pollution experts were also critical of the government’s practice of testing on a set schedule that could be easily predicted. In interviews with the Times, county officials conceded the system could be gamed.
After the Times’ report published last week, local leaders demanded action.
“Gopher Industries and Energy Capital Partners, the New Jersey-based private equity owner, should be held accountable for their callous disregard for environmental laws and the families who live in the area,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said in a statement.
“Regulators must take action to help ensure that bad actors are not able to ‘cook the books,’” she added.
Castor said the federal government had a duty to hold Gopher responsible to the “full extent of the law.” She said she had sent the Times’ report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice.
The Justice Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Times.
Separately, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor called the Times’ report concerning.
“We rely on state and federal regulators to have an accurate and timely picture of conditions, and I am communicating with our regulators to ensure they are doing everything necessary to protect our environment and public health,” she said in a statement Friday.
The county set its new monitoring schedule after its air division leaders met with the EPA and state Department of Environmental Protection. Previously, regulators only tested the air for lead once every six days.
Woodard said regulators are keeping the six-day schedule but also adding the random days. The additional readings will be recorded each week across all of the agency’s three monitors.
After collecting several months of data, the county plans to determine whether emissions differ between planned and random monitoring days.
The county will then decide whether to permanently adopt the random monitoring.
For months, Times journalists have been reporting on conditions inside and outside of the Tampa factory.
The Times’ initial investigation into the plant, which published in March, revealed that Gopher exposed hundreds of workers to high amounts of lead and other chemicals inside the plant.
Gopher knew its dust levels were a problem. For years, the factory’s ventilation system didn’t operate properly. But the company was slow to make repairs and disabled key features meant to capture fumes in the workspace. It left employees without adequate protective equipment as they were exposed to air-lead levels hundreds of times the federal limit.
Most had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of serious health problems. Some unknowingly carried lead dust home and exposed their kids.
The Times’ reporting prompted the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect the plant for the first time in five years and propose $319,000 in fines.
It also spurred an investigation from the county Environmental Protection Commission that found more than 24 possible environmental violations, including that Gopher failed to report mechanical problems that could increase air pollution.
Officials said fines are likely.
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.