A Tampa lead factory now faces $518,000 more in fines after a two month inspection by local environmental regulators. This was prompted by an appeal by a Tampa Bay Times investigation.
Sterlin woodard, the lead investigator in the case, stated that the penalty against Gopher Resource, if it is imposed, would be the highest ever assessed by the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
After the April elections, county regulators began a wide-ranging inspection at Gopher. Times investigation Detailled dangerous working conditionsInside the factory. The county Many of the newsrooms’ findings were confirmed by probe.
These actions of the commissions are in addition to federal penalties that were imposed in September. Gopher faces a total of $837,000 in fines.
The investigation by the county found more than 20 possible violations, including Gophers failures to report mechanical problems that could lead to increased air pollution. In June, the inspection was completed and regulators have been working to find a settlement.
In response to a public records request by the newspaper, the county released Friday’s proposed fine and consent order. Times. The draft order details the county’s findings that Gopher allowed toxic dust to build up in the factory, altered its ventilation system, without regulatory approval, removed exhaust fans meant to capture fumes, and allowed poisonous gasses to leak into work areas.
The county found that Gopher left problems with mechanical components that could lead to pollution unattended for many years. At least five times, sulfur dioxide emissions reached levels so high that workers had to evacuate the factory’s wastewater treatment area.
The county proposed that Gophers can hire consultants to examine its ventilation system, and then implement technology that would automatically notify regulators if there were any problems.
According to the draft order, the system must also report any data irregularities that could indicate that equipment has been modified.
Such a system could alert regulators to hazardous conditions Gopher years earlier.
In a statement, the TimesU.S. Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, praised the county regulators and called for a penalty to hold the company accountable. However, Castor said that more action is needed to address health issues among factory workers and their family members.
Castor, whose district contains the factory, stated that the historic fine would help to address some of the damage done by the company. The mandated installation and new reporting safeguards will help protect against violations of law.
She said that the company should cease to exist if it is unsafe for workers or neighbors.
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Woodard did not comment on Saturday’s consent order due to ongoing negotiations between Gopher and the county.
Gopher stated in a statement that the company has cooperated with county regulators, and is committed to following regulations. According to Gopher Resource, its emissions levels remain well below the federal standards. We will continue to work with EPC to resolve any outstanding issues.
Gophers Tampa’s factory is the only Florida lead smelter. It extracts lead from approximately 50,000 car batteries per day and melts it down to make new metal blocks for sale.
The county commission was established in 1967 and oversees Gophers’ emissions. In The local air quality standards are enforced for lead and other chemicals. The plant is located in the east Tampa area, near Kenly Elementary school. This area includes single-family homes as well as industry. Many of the residents living nearby are people of color.
Gopher has paid $226,000 to the county for air pollution violations since it purchased the factory 15 years back. Current proposal: $518,173 The penalty is more than twice the amount. This is the most recent penalty that will be assessed against the company as a result of the Times reporting.
After a six month inspection into worker safety at Gopher’s plant, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Gopher $319,000 in September Times findings. This inspection was the agency’s first in five year. It found that Gopher had intentionally exposed its workers to high levels of lead in the air.
Gopher knew that too much lead dust was being accumulated in the factory but failed to provide adequate protection for workers as levels of lead and other chemicals rose hundreds of times beyond the federal limit. Many people had dangerously high levels of metal in their blood. This put them at risk of serious health problems. Others brought toxic dust home with them and exposed their children to it.
TimesInitial investigations at Gopher Resource took reporters 18 months. Reporters eventually succeeded Interviews were conducted with more than 100 former and current workers. They were able to access company documents that regulators have never seen.
The TimesFound a There are many reasons why high levels of exposure can occur.. Gophers ventilation system was not working properly for years. The company disabled or turned off key features that capture fumes and moved slowly to fix equipment problems inside the plant.
Later, the TimesWe document the company’s practices Put the environment and community around you at risk. Gopher leaked too much lead into the atmosphere, released contaminated water to the Palm River, and mishandled dangerous waste.
The TimesAlso, Gopher had taken steps to reduce its emissions when it was aware that county regulators were monitoring the air quality in the community for lead. County regulators responded by launching a second investigation into Gopher and introducing random testing.
The inquiry is ongoing.
This story is part in a collaboration with FRONTLINE (the PBS series), through its Local Journalism Initiative, which was funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Corporation for Public Broadcasting.