A Tampa Bay Times investigation this year revealed how a Tampa lead plant put workers at risk by allowing toxic dust to accumulate inside its factory. Now a follow-up report by the Times shows how Gopher Resource’s practices have also threatened the surrounding environment. Regulators need to get a better grip on this operation and work with Gopher to further restrict pollution.
Gopher’s Tampa factory is the only lead smelter in Florida and one of only 10 such operations in the United States. Inside, workers take old car batteries, extract the lead and melt it in furnaces to make new blocks of metal. The Times’ initial investigation, published in March, found the factory’s ventilation system for years didn’t function correctly and the company disabled key features meant to capture fumes in the workspace. As a result, workers were exposed to air-lead levels hundreds of times the federal limit.
The Times’ latest report, published Sunday, showed the impact the plant’s operation has had on the community. Records and interviews show the plant has pumped more lead into the air than any other factory in Florida over the last two decades. Gopher knows exactly when county regulators monitor air quality and has taken steps to reduce pollution on those days. In the past six years, Gopher repeatedly discharged polluted water into the Palm River, sent too many chemicals into Tampa’s sewer system and mishandled hazardous waste.
Residents and workers at nearby businesses have raised a variety of concerns with the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission. People who live and work in the area described tasting metal in the air and smelling a sulfur scent, like rotten eggs. During an investigation this summer, prompted by the Times report, county regulators found dozens of possible violations. Local, state and federal agencies have hit the company with more than $540,000 in fines and fees, and officials have said more fines are likely.
Gopher bought the plant in 2006 and vowed to be a new kind of owner. After a rocky start in Tampa, emissions began to fall. In September 2018, the area around Gopher was removed from the list of places that didn’t meet the federal government’s standards for lead in the air. In a statement to the Times, Gopher noted that the amount of lead in the air around the plant is far below national limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of the decline was because Gopher had enclosed the furnace and other areas of the plant. The company said it had invested $140 million on environmental and safety-related upgrades since buying the Tampa plant, and that over the last three years, Gopher’s leaders have put a quarter of the operating budget toward those improvements. “The air quality around Gopher this year is 80% percent better than the (EPA) standards require,” the company said.
Still, there is room for improvement. More than 800 people live near the plant; most are people of color and many are living in poverty. Dozens of soil samples taken by Times reporters showed lead concentrations higher than typical levels in Hillsborough County. The highest concentrations were closest to the plant. While the county monitors air quality in the area, the monitors run on a set schedule. According to records and interviews with current and former workers, Gopher took extra steps to keep emissions lower on the days it knew regulators were watching.
The county should switch to random monitoring of air quality, which could provide a truer picture of emissions from the plant. And it should conduct regular, robust inspections to ensure that wastewater and other manufacturing byproducts are safely contained and disposed.
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Gopher’s work is often dirty and dangerous by nature, but the public benefits from an operation that keeps untold numbers of lead-acid batteries from winding up in landfills, rivers and alleys. The challenge here is keeping a beneficial salvaging operation alive while protecting the community from the manufacturing process it requires. Regulators and the company should realize that public health and business can and should coexist.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.