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Dozens of workers file suit against Tampa lead factory

Sixty-four workers allege they were exposed to dangerous levels of lead and other toxic chemicals at Gopher Resource.
Looking east at the Gopher Resource lead smelter, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021 in Tampa.
Looking east at the Gopher Resource lead smelter, Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Nov. 4|Updated Nov. 4

More than five dozen workers have filed suit against Gopher Resource, alleging they were harmed by high lead exposure at the Tampa factory.

Across two separate lawsuits, 64 workers claim the company put profits over safety by failing to fix severe ventilation problems that allowed toxic lead dust to accumulate in the plant and to provide workers with proper respiratory protection.

The latest suit was filed Wednesday in Hillsborough County on behalf of 22 workers and 12 of their children. The complaint alleges dusty conditions inside Florida’s only lead smelter resulted in workers carrying lead particles to their cars and into their homes where they exposed children to the potent neurotoxin.

Inside the factory, workers’ respirators didn’t seal properly because they became so sweaty from the heat, according to the complaint. So much lead dust accumulated in work areas, the suit says, it “resembled piles of dirt.”

Eric Autery, a former furnace operator at Gopher Resource, poses for a portrait outside his home. Autery saw his blood-lead levels jump soon after he began work at Gopher. He is now among dozens of workers suing the company. Monday, Nov. 16, 2020 in Tampa.
Eric Autery, a former furnace operator at Gopher Resource, poses for a portrait outside his home. Autery saw his blood-lead levels jump soon after he began work at Gopher. He is now among dozens of workers suing the company. Monday, Nov. 16, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The complaint further alleges that Gopher failed to provide workers with adequate medical evaluations or fully inform them about the dangers of living with lead exposure. It does not say how much the workers are seeking in damages.

“We look forward to proving our case at trial,” Frank Miranda, a Tampa lawyer who’s among the attorneys representing the workers, wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.

The second lawsuit was filed in September on behalf of 42 workers, who were employed in various areas of the plant, including the furnace, refinery and maintenance departments.

That complaint alleges workers’ exposure to lead and other harmful substances — such as cadmium, arsenic and sulfur dioxide — caused them to have an array of health problems, including cancer, kidney damage, high blood pressure, cognitive disorders, memory loss, anemia and breathing problems.

Gopher was negligent, the suit says, because the company failed to maintain a safe work environment, make timely repairs or warn employees about the dangers of lead.

“Gopher modeled their factory off of taking advantage of individuals that needed work and were desperate to find work,” said Michael Fuller, a San Juan-based attorney representing the workers. “And they put them in what they knew was a toxic situation.”

The lawsuits are the most recent fallout after a Times investigation published last year found that hundreds of workers at Gopher were exposed to dangerous levels of lead and other chemicals. Six of the plaintiffs were named in the newsroom’s stories. Among them: Eric Autery, an Army vet and former furnace worker, who was exposed to lead levels seven times what his company-issued respirator could handle.

Related: Read the entire Times investigation, Poisoned

Gopher recycles lead from used car batteries, melts it in furnaces and creates new metal to sell to other businesses.

In a statement to the Times, Gopher did not address the allegations in the lawsuit, saying the company does not comment on pending litigation. Gopher said it provides thousands of hours of training to workers and allocates roughly a quarter of its annual budget to safety and environmental protections, including equipment for workers.

“Gopher is focused on continuous improvement and process enhancements,” the company said.

The recent filings are not the first lawsuits against Gopher.

In June 2021, a worker sued the company on behalf of his young son alleging that the company’s dangerous and dusty work environment resulted in the boy being exposed to the neurotoxin. That worker, Ko Brown, also is a plaintiff in the September suit and is represented by a team of attorneys, including Fuller and prominent civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump.

Related: Former worker sues Tampa lead smelter over son’s exposure

Brown and his family were featured in the Times’ three-part series on Gopher.

The newsroom’s investigation found that air-lead readings inside some parts of the plant were regularly hundreds of times above the federal limit, and many workers wore respirators that weren’t strong enough to adequately protect them. The factory’s ventilation system for years didn’t function correctly, adding to the high exposure levels.

Ko Brown is pictured in a portrait taken in his backyard. Brown worked as a furnace supervisor at Gopher Resource. He has filed two lawsuits against the company, claiming the plant's dusty conditions hurt him and his young son. Friday, Nov. 13, 2020 in Zephyrhills.
Ko Brown is pictured in a portrait taken in his backyard. Brown worked as a furnace supervisor at Gopher Resource. He has filed two lawsuits against the company, claiming the plant's dusty conditions hurt him and his young son. Friday, Nov. 13, 2020 in Zephyrhills. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Most Gopher workers had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of serious health problems, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and kidney problems. The Times’ investigation also found that dust from the plant was the suspected source of lead exposure in at least 16 children of workers who unknowingly brought the poison home in their cars or on their shoes.

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