Hillsborough County ends pollution alert around Tampa lead factory

But Gopher Resource remains under increased scrutiny over the company’s emissions.
Smoke from the Gopher Resource factory can been seen from the playground at Kenly Elementary School in Tampa.
Smoke from the Gopher Resource factory can been seen from the playground at Kenly Elementary School in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published March 11, 2022|Updated March 11, 2022

Hillsborough County regulators ended an air pollution alert for the community around a Tampa lead factory late Thursday after government testing showed levels of the neurotoxin in the air declined in recent weeks.

Gopher Resource, however, will remain under increased scrutiny, as it has been since government monitors in January recorded levels of lead outside the company’s factory on East Jewel Avenue that exceeded federal air quality standards. One test was more than five times the limit.

The high results prompted the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission to issue an air pollution precaution on Feb. 18, warning residents to limit time spent outdoors until further notice. The county also required Gopher to take additional measures to better control the factory’s emissions, including increasing the frequency of vacuuming the factory yard and banning certain construction projects that could kick up lead dust.

Regulators ended the alert for the community this week after samples collected in February showed air-lead levels below federal standards. The test results do not reflect air quality in the community in real time.

Reggie Sanford, director of the county’s air division, said regulators will still require Gopher to follow the special measures to help control lead emissions. He said regulators have not pinpointed what caused the spikes in January.

The high readings, he said, prompted Hillsborough County Public Schools to reach out to county regulators about the safety of Kenly Elementary School, which is a half-mile from the Gopher factory. The district’s safety office requested data from regulators and plans to conduct its own, more frequent testing at the school, Sanford said.

Tanya Arja, a district spokesperson, said the district took other precautionary measures, including replacing Kenly’s air filters and testing air quality and water in the school. In addition, Kenly limited student activity outside for two days. Arja said all results from the district’s testing came back normal.

Regulators also announced that they will now post data showing recent air-lead levels in the community on the county’s website. Tests from January and February have been added to the site with elevated results highlighted.

Gopher did not answer questions from the Tampa Bay Times about what the company believed contributed to the high levels.

“We’re pleased that the EPC rescinded their notice and confirmed that average air lead levels have been and remain well below the federal EPA standards that are protective of public health,” the company wrote in a statement.

The county operates three air quality monitors outside of Gopher’s factory that measure the amount of lead in the air, including one that is at Kenly Elementary. An area is considered 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.

Around Gopher, the three-month average is below the 0.15 level, according to the county.

The factory, which recycles lead-acid batteries, is tucked inside a Tampa neighborhood that includes single-family homes and more than 800 residents, many of whom are people of color and experiencing poverty. It is the only lead smelter in Florida and one of 10 such factories in the U.S.

Related: Read the entire Times investigation, Poisoned

Last year, a Times investigation found Gopher 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 the factory and testing on a randomized schedule — instead of a set, publicized schedule they’d used for years.

County regulators credited a random test for capturing the high reading near Gopher in January.