Tampa lead factory faces $518,000 in more fines for environmental violations

The proposed penalty would be the largest in the history of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
The County Environmental Protection Commission began its probe of Gopher Resource after a Tampa Bay Times investigation. The commission is proposing a $518,000 fine, after confirming many of the Times' findings.
The County Environmental Protection Commission began its probe of Gopher Resource after a Tampa Bay Times investigation. The commission is proposing a $518,000 fine, after confirming many of the Times' findings. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times (2021) ]
Published Jan. 22, 2022|Updated Jan. 23, 2022

A Tampa lead factory is facing $518,000 in additional fines following a two-month inspection by local environmental regulators prompted by a Tampa Bay Times investigation.

If finalized, the penalty against Gopher Resource would be the largest in the history of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, said Sterlin Woodard, the lead investigator on the case.

County regulators began their wide-ranging inspection of Gopher in April after the Times’ investigation detailed dangerous working conditions inside the factory. The county’s probe confirmed many of the newsroom’s findings.

The commission’s actions come on top of federal penalties issued in September. Combined, Gopher faces $837,000 in fines.

The county’s investigation found more than two dozen possible violations, including Gopher’s failure to report mechanical issues that could increase air pollution. Regulators completed the inspection in June and have since been working to reach a settlement.

The county released its proposed fine and consent order late Friday in response to a public records request from the Times. The draft order outlines the county’s findings that Gopher let toxic dust build up inside the factory, altered its ventilation system without regulatory approval, removed exhaust hoods meant to capture fumes and allowed poisonous gases to spill into work areas.

Related: Read the entire Times investigation, Poisoned

Gopher left mechanical problems that could contribute to pollution unfixed for years, the county found. And at least five times, sulfur dioxide emissions climbed to levels so high they required workers to evacuate the factory’s wastewater treatment area.

As a result, the county has proposed that Gopher hire consultants to evaluate its ventilation system and implement technology that would automatically notify regulators of any problems.

“The system should also self-report any irregularities in the data that might suggest a modification to equipment may have occurred,” the draft order says.

Such a system could have alerted regulators to hazardous conditions at Gopher years sooner.

In a statement to the Times, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, praised county regulators and called the proposed penalty “an important step in holding the company accountable.” But she said more action would be needed to address health problems among factory workers and their families.

“The historic fine would address some of the harm inflicted by the company, and the mandated installation of equipment and new reporting safeguards will help guard against violations of the law,” said Castor, whose district includes the factory.

“Moving forward, if the company cannot operate safely for workers and neighbors, it should not operate at all,” she said.

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Woodard declined to comment on the consent order Saturday because of the county’s ongoing negotiations with Gopher.

Gopher said in a statement that it has cooperated with county regulators and is committed to complying with regulations. The company maintains that its emission levels remain well below federal standards.“Gopher Resource has a long-standing, strong, working relationship with Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission (EPC),” the company’s statement said. “We intend to continue to engage proactively with EPC to address and resolve outstanding matters.”

Related: Read the county's consent order

Workers at Gopher’s Tampa factory, the only lead smelter in Florida, extract lead from roughly 50,000 old car batteries a day and melt it down to create new blocks of metal to sell.

The county commission, which was created in 1967, oversees Gopher’s emissions into the neighborhood air and enforces federal air-quality standards for lead and other chemicals. The plant is near Kenly Elementary School in an eastern pocket of Tampa that includes a mix of industry and single-family homes. Most residents who live nearby are people of color, and many are experiencing poverty.

Since buying the factory 15 years ago, Gopher has paid the county roughly $226,000 in fines and fees for air pollution violations. The current proposed $518,173 penalty is more than twice that amount and the latest to be levied against the company in response to the Times’ reporting.

In September, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Gopher $319,000 after a six-month inspection into worker safety at the plant also confirmed many of the Times’ findings. The inspection, which was the agency’s first in five years, found that Gopher willfully exposed its workers to high airborne levels of lead.

Gopher knew too much lead dust was accumulating inside the factory, but left workers without adequate protection as levels of lead and other chemicals rose to hundreds of times the federal limit. Many had alarming amounts of metal in their blood, putting them at risk of serious health consequences. Others tracked toxic dust home and exposed their kids.

Times reporters spent 18 months initially investigating conditions at Gopher Resource. Reporters ultimately interviewed more than 100 current and former workers and were able to get access to internal company documents that regulators had never seen.

The Times found a variety of reasons for the high exposure levels. Among them: Gopher’s complex ventilation system for years didn’t function correctly; the company disabled or turned off key features meant to capture fumes in work areas; and it moved slowly to fix equipment breakdowns inside the plant.

Later, the Times chronicled how the company’s practices put the surrounding community and environment at risk. Gopher pumped too much lead into the air, discharged contaminated water into the Palm River and mishandled hazardous waste.

The Times also found that Gopher took steps to lower its emissions on days it knew county regulators were monitoring the community air for lead. In response, county regulators started testing on a randomized schedule and launched another investigation into the company.

That inquiry is ongoing.

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.