Tampa Lead Factory incurs more problems | FRONTLINE | PBS
Toxic fumes escape from the furnace inside the lead smelter east of Tampa, escaping from extraction hoods meant to capture them, floating around the workspace and creating a haze in the middle. above a dusty ground. A worker emerges from the fog.
Sunday’s scene at Gopher Resource was captured on video by an employee to document ongoing issues with the plant’s long-disrupted ventilation system and shared with the Tampa bay times. The images were taken from an area inside the plant with historically high worker exposures to lead and while a federal inspection of the plant’s occupational safety and health remains active .
Regulators spent nearly two months at the plant following a Time survey released in March which found that hundreds of Gopher workers were exposed to large amounts of lead and other chemicals. Levels of lead in the air have reached hundreds of times the federal limit, exceeded the protective capacity of company-supplied respirators, and at times even reached life-threatening concentrations.
The newsroom’s investigation found that mechanical issues over the past decade have contributed to the spread of neurotoxin and toxic gases in the workspace. Error-riddled inspections and a years-long absence of regulators further allowed unsafe conditions in the plant to persist.
Read more: POISONED: Part 1: The Factory
OSHA has said little about its current investigation, which began on April 5. Regulators reviewed documents, sampled the air and collected dust samples around the plant.
Three workers said that after the regulatory investigation began, employees in high exposure areas were fitted with more protective respirators.
OSHA said regulators have six months to conduct an inspection, but did not specify when the agency plans to proceed with Gopher. The agency did not respond to specific questions about ventilation issues at the plant, including how the issues were still occurring during open inspection.
But in response to the video showing plumes of smoke emitted from the oven, the agency said it was “actively assessing the conditions.”
In a statement to Time, Gopher initially denied any issues with the oven depicted in the video, but acknowledged issues with another oven that the company said it immediately addressed. After reporters shared a copy of the video with company executives, Gopher provided a second statement which, in part, read, “We have addressed and resolved the issue.”
The company did not respond to questions about the underlying cause of the fumes entering the work environment or the remedies made.
“Gopher Resource is focused on operating our plant safely and protecting our workers,” the company said.
Earlier this month, Gopher released a full-page ad in the Time publish an open letter to the community. In the letter, CEO Brian Leen wrote that the company had made security improvements and said he expected the current inspection to help Gopher prioritize ways to make further improvements. Neither Gopher nor OSHA have answered questions about whether regulators have shared preliminary findings with business leaders so far.
Leen also said in the letter that he moved from Gopher’s headquarters in Eagan, Minnesota, to Tampa to personally oversee operations and make the plant’s success his top priority.
The Gopher Plant is the only lead smelter in Florida. The lead-acid batteries that power the cars are recycled at the factory so that the metal they contain can be recovered.
The process works by extracting lead from used batteries, melting it in furnaces, and purifying it by adding chemicals in the refinery. It is then molded into new blocks which are sold to other companies, such as manufacturers of batteries and ammunition.
The OSHA inspection is the first the agency has performed at the plant in five years. After the Time’ published survey, US Representative Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, and US Representative Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, called on the agency to act quickly.
Read more: POISONED: Part 2: Failures
In the days and weeks leading up to the regulators ‘arrival, the company prepared by installing mats to suck lead dust from workers’ shoes as they left the plant, replacing a mud-covered floor where the batteries are cracked and making patches intended to improve the plant’s ventilation system. .
But four workers told the Time that repairs to the ventilation system earlier this year did not prevent problems from occurring in the furnace department. The video shot on Sunday showing the emissions from the glowing oven, two people said, is just one example of lingering problems.
Four years ago, consultants hired by the company discovered problems with smoke escaping from the same furnace area. Photos and videos taken by workers in 2019, 2020 and this year seem to show that a similar problem is occurring. Some describe a workspace so smoky that there are almost white conditions.
Three workers said regulators evaluated the plant’s ventilation system, but OSHA did not respond to questions about the agency’s actions, citing the open inspection.
Officials have also requested reviews of the plant’s impact on the surrounding community.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Gwen Myers last month organized a town hall for the neighborhood around the factory and called for the health department to provide blood lead tests for children who live near the factory. . The factory is half a mile from Kenly Elementary in an area that is a mix of heavy industry, small auto and tire repair shops, and residential homes.
Read more: County to provide testing to neighbors of Florida lead smelter
More than 30 children were tested on May 1 at Kenly Park and none had high blood lead levels, said Kevin Watler, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County.
Castor has also asked the United States Environmental Protection Agency for an expedited review of the plant’s operations.
The County Environmental Protection Commission, which enforces federal air quality standards, opened an inspection last month that remains pending.
Gopher’s problems have also caught the attention of rating agencies, Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global.
Both agencies said a downgrade in Gopher’s credit rating was possible, which could affect the company’s ability to borrow money. A spokeswoman for Moody’s said the review was underway. A spokesperson for S&P Global said Gopher remains on credit watch with negative implications.
Credit bureaus cited the ongoing regulatory inspection, Time’ reports of high employee chemical exposures and the amount of Gopher’s existing debt to equity as reasons for possible downgrading. They will examine whether Gopher, which made approximately $ 360 million in sales last year, can continue to operate its Tampa plant at the same capacity; whether regulators will issue fines; and whether Gopher will be forced to make repairs that might be costly.
This story is part of a collaboration with the Tampa bay times through the FRONTLINE Local Journalism Initiative, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.