Hillsborough County cautions public about high lead around Tampa factory

Government monitoring devices around Gopher Resource measured lead levels well above federal air-quality standards.
The Gopher Resource lead smelter is pictured at the end of the street where a single house sits, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021 in Tampa.
The Gopher Resource lead smelter is pictured at the end of the street where a single house sits, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Feb. 19, 2022|Updated Feb. 19, 2022

Local regulators issued an air pollution precaution late Friday warning residents near a Tampa lead factory to limit outdoor activity after government testing showed elevated concentrations of the neurotoxin in the air.

Government recording devices around Gopher Resource measured lead levels well above the federal air-quality standard — including one that was more than five times the limit, according to the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.

“Due to the elevated levels,” the county statement said, “EPC is advising individuals to consider reducing prolonged outside activities in the vicinity of the plant.”

County regulators said it’s the first such public notice the county has ever issued for lead.

Gopher’s factory is on East Jewel Avenue in a Tampa neighborhood that includes single-family homes and more than 800 residents. Most are people of color, and many are experiencing poverty. The factory is a half-mile from Kenly Elementary School.

The high lead levels come as Gopher has faced increased government scrutiny after a Tampa Bay Times investigation found the company took steps to limit pollution when it knew environmental regulators were watching. In response to the Times’ findings, county regulators in December began doubling the number of air samples they collect around Gopher, testing on a randomized schedule and investigating the company’s emissions levels.

Related: RELATED: Read the entire Times investigation, Poisoned

County regulators credited a random test for capturing the highest reading last month.

Two elevated levels were discovered in January, from a government monitor just south of the plant in a CSX rail yard. One, on Jan. 7, was more than five times the federal air-quality standard and from a random test. Another reading, on Jan. 29, was nearly twice as high.

“Had it not been for the random monitoring, we wouldn’t have realized that first high number,” said Reggie Sanford, who heads the air division for the Environmental Protection Commission. “A high day would have gone unrecognized.”

County regulators notified the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the elevated levels. They plan to analyze the pollution data more frequently and meet with Gopher next week to probe the potential cause.

The county Environmental Protection Commission operates three air-quality monitors outside of Gopher’s factory. One at CSX, another outside an empty business off East 14th Avenue and the third at Kenly Elementary.

An area is deemed in violation of federal air-quality standards when a three-month rolling average of readings exceeds 0.15 micrograms of lead per cubic meter of air. Regulators then try to identify what caused the deterioration in air quality, and companies can be cited for actions that resulted in increased emissions.

Around Gopher, the monthly average in January exceeded the 0.15 limit but the three-month average has remained below.

In a statement to the Times, Gopher said the high readings were “unusual” and “inconsistent” with other readings recorded from the monitors last month.

“We take this matter very seriously and will review the data in close consultation with EPC to better understand the situation,” the company said. “In doing so, we will continue our ongoing cooperation with EPC as we strive to further enhance our safety and environmental protection efforts.”

Political leaders on Friday voiced concern about people living around the factory.

“I urge residents near the Gopher lead smelting plant to heed the EPC’s warning,” U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said in a statement.

“It appears that Gopher and its parent company are unwilling or unable to operate safely, and if they cannot operate the plant safely, they should cease operations and be held accountable for their harms.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor expressed gratitude for regulators’ efforts.

“It’s unacceptable for any Tampa resident to have to beware the air they breathe,” the mayor said.

Lead poses a risk to children, adults and animals. The metal can be inhaled or ingested. Once inside the body, it enters the bloodstream and settles into bone, where it can remain for decades.

Children are especially vulnerable to lead’s effects because of their developing brains. But lead can also cause ailments like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and kidney damage in adults.

Despite the risks, regulators for years tested the amount of lead in the air around Gopher on a schedule set months in advance and published publicly by the federal government. Gopher knew exactly when testing would take place and marked the days on company calendars, the Times found. 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 Times has been reporting on conditions inside and outside of the Tampa plant for months.

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.

In March, the Times revealed hundreds of Gopher workers were exposed to high levels of lead and other toxic chemicals inside the factory.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an inspection after the Times’ initial report. It also spurred an investigation from county environmental regulators that found more than two dozen possible environmental violations, including that Gopher failed to report mechanical problems that could increase air pollution.

Gopher faces a combined $837,000 in fines from the county and federal inquiries.

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.