We're reporters who revealed how Florida's only lead factory has poisoned its workers and polluted the community
Hey everyone, we’re Tampa Bay Times investigative reporters Corey G. Johnson (u/coreygjohnson), Rebecca Woolington (u/rwoolington) and Eli Murray (u/elimurray).
In March, our Poisoned report, in partnership with Frontline, uncovered how workers at a Tampa lead smelter have been exposed to dangerous levels of the neurotoxin. Hundreds had alarming amounts of the metal in their blood. Many suffered serious consequences. Some carried lead home, potentially exposing their kids. (One former employee is suing Gopher Resource.)
In Poisoned Part 2, we showed how Gopher Resource knew about the lead dust inside its factory. It turned off ventilation features and delayed repairs to broken mechanical systems. For years, regulators were nowhere to be found.
Spurred by our investigation, OSHA showed up and found Gopher willfully exposed workers to high levels of airborne lead and doled out a $319k fine — one of the largest penalties in Florida in recent history. Lead wasn’t the only toxic metal it struggled to contain — the plant also broke rules on cadmium exposure.
Recently, we published Part 3: The smelter also threatened the surrounding Tampa community and environment with a pattern of polluting, despite promises to change. Under Gopher’s ownership, the plant released too much lead into the air, polluted local waterways and improperly dumped hazardous waste. Nearby residents worry about potential health effects. One put it simply: “That battery place scares me.”
Ask us anything.
Edit: The questions seem to be slowing down a bit so I just wanted to take a moment to say thank you, redditors, for the excellent questions. We'll be around periodically throughout the evening so if you have more questions, please ask and we will get to them. We will also be doing a twitter spaces livestream next week to talk about the story. If you're on twitter and interested in checking it out, you can set a reminder for the event at this link.
This is an excellent question. I agree that the fine seems small when you compare it to the revenues of Gopher but if you compare it to other OSHA fines it will be one of their largest fines given out this year. OSHA cited Gopher for 44 violations, one of them was a willful violation which is the most serious. Beyond the fine, what this means, is that OSHA will require Gopher to fix the issues that lead to those violations and will presumably keep an eye out for those things in future inspections. Prior to our first story, OSHA hadn't been to the factory in 5 years.
I agree that the fine seems small when you compare it to the revenues of Gopher but if you compare it to other OSHA fines it will be one of their largest fines given out this year.
If one of OSHA's largest fines was for a meaninglessly small amount then doesn't that seem to imply that OSHA fines are, generically, meaningless?
Most of these fines are barely slaps on the wrist for big corps it seems... Every fight for a couple dollars of fines is a David vs Goliath battle
Not to mention that OSHA is understaffed and underfunded if I recall the John Oliver segment correctly.
On purpose, just like the IRS and USPS. A certain political party has made it a point to underfund government entities so they can point to their failure as evidence that more things should be privatized.
Don't forget the FEC; politicians underfund the commission responsible for overseeing their campaign funds. I did a story on that a few years back.
Shouldn't jail time be a thing ? I assume there is a trail that goes back to people that emailed / signed stuff that lead to that situation ?
As of right now, there are no criminal charges pending. However U.S. Rep Cathy Castor said she forwarded the report to the DOJ and EPA last week. Too early to know what if anything will come of that, but we will be watching and reporting on any new developments.
Do they have to shut down until they are fixed? If they got warnings before, then this should be game over for them.
No, they have not been required to shut down for repairs.
This is why suing corps in the USA is your ONLY form of proper redress. Don't be fooled by the propoganda which says Americans are unnecessary letigious. It's for VERY good reason.
Legislators have all but eliminated corporate accountability from their side. The only side left to do anything is personal injury suits.
Here is an incredible podcast about it:
I absolutely love citations needed and wish every body would listen to it.
200%. I hoard episodes. I relisten. I subscribe to the substack. And, I'd totally do the patreon and pay subscriber thing, if I could afford it.
Those two are so damn smart and somehow see things, I never even thought of.
Thanks, I will check them out!
First, thank you for what you guys do. Investigative journalism is so important.
In your opinions, do you all think anything will actually change at this plant, or do you think that they will pay the fine and OSHA will keep looking the other way?
That is the question of the hour! I hope that there will be change but I can't say with any certainty one way or the other. U.S. Rep Cathy Castor said she forwarded the reports to the DOJ and EPA last week so we will see, what if anything they have to say about it.
Thank you for the kind message of support!
This feels like “A Civil Action” repeating itself. Unbelievable that this type of thing still happens today. What remediation actions did OSHA order Gopher to carry out? How are they keeping them accountable? Are class action lawsuits currently being filed?
OSHA requires them to fix each issue that resulted in a violation. There are a whole slew of things Gopher will have to fix, ranging in severity from cleaning equipment to upgrading PPE that doesn't protect against the high levels of metals in the air inside the plant.
Since our investigation has run, one worker has filed a lawsuit against Gopher. We're told that more workers are evaluating their options as well.
What’s the penalty if they don’t fix the issues? Is it more fines that amount to a tiny fraction of their revenue?
Their work is permitted so regulators can pull the permits and force them to stop doing business if the issues aren't corrected.
Do you think it's possible to run a Lead Smelter safely? Is that happening elsewhere?
Corey, Rebecca, and Eli- a heartfelt thank you for all you do to support our community here in Tampa Bay, and everything you do to hold those in power accountable.
Signed, A proud supporter of Tampa Bay Times' Investigative Fund https://projects.tampabay.com/projects/donate/
Thank you for the kind words and for being a supporter. You are very appreciated!
Lead Smelting is typically pretty dirty, dangerous work but it is possible to do it responsibly. In fact, you have to look no further than the other plant owned by Gopher which operates in Minnesota. Workers who had been to both plants said it's like night and day between the two plants. They even joked that the floor was so clean in Minnesota that you could eat off of it.
As someone who lived in Oak Park within the last few years, thank you all for doing this work. There are so many low income and working-class families in the area who are also inevitably going to be affected by this to some degree.
To that point, should individuals in the area ask for any additional health screenings during visits to their doctor’s offices?
Yes, anyone with concerns should get their blood screened for lead. It's a very standard test that's already required for children who have Medicaid. After the first two stories in our series published, the county health department offered free testing to residents at a local park.
I read your username as 'Elim Urray' and was like Any relation to Garak?
I'm glad that someone is looking out for the workers, did your investigation show any negative effect on non-workers?
Lol now I'm not going to be able to unsee that with my own username.
In the 90s soil in the nearby mobile home park was found to be contaminated with high levels of lead and some children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. Gopher ended up buying the property and the mobile home park closed down.
I am unable to watch videos at the moment, but will watch soon so my apologies if this is answered in them, but are there any criminal charges being brought forth against the owners of Gopher?
Fees from OSHA are good and all, but if owners aren't facing any criminal charges, it seems like they would be getting off virtually untouched.
As of right now, no criminal charges have been brought up. However, U.S. Rep Cathy Castor said she was forwarding the reports to the U.S. DOJ
Years ago I worked for a battery plant in Pennsylvania that was the polar opposite. Workers on the floor had their blood drawn monthly to check for lead levels, and if it ever got high enough (I believe it was 0.40mg or higher) they would sequester the employee away until it dropped back down and in severe cases, would mandate the employee go through chelation therapy. This company had no such policies in place?
They do quarterly blood lead testing and reassign workers if their levels are too high. They tie employee bonuses to blood lead levels which gives employees an incentive to lower their levels in dangerous ways such as chelation treatment or even donating contaminated blood (which isn't screened for heavy metals). OSHA also found they failed to provide adequate PPE for the concentrations of lead in the air in the plant.
We go into detail about the effects on the workers in part 1 here if you're interested to know more.
I'm near Tampa, where are they located exactly?
In East Tampa, just northeast of the McKay Bay.
Statistically, has the environmental impact of this affected crime rates or unusual incidents in the area, for example "Florida Man" reports?
That's an interesting question but not one we looked into so I can't give you a good answer. The community has a high poverty rate, about twice that of the rest of the county, and it would be tough to trace crime back to the environmental impact of the factory.
It is crazy to imagine that such things still happen in developed countries in 2021. How did they get around all the regulations that should prevent such a disaster?
We get into this quite a bit in part 2 and part 3. But the basics of it is that OSHA hadn't been to the plant in 5 years and prior to that when they had shown up they had made mistakes. Like testing for the wrong chemical in response to a worker complaint filed with OSHA.
The environmental regulations are written in a way that makes it possible to game the system. The government has lead monitors that run for 24 hours every six days. The issue with that is that it is every six days, without fail. Workers tell us the company was able to plan operations in advance to limit the amount of lead picked up by the monitors on the days that they ran.
Hi! I just wanna say that the tampa bay times has amazing investigative journalism. What do you think they are doing right that other news papers aren’t ?
Thank you very much. The Tampa Bay Times is a newsroom that highly values covering important local stories, so much so that they let the three of us chase this story down full time for the better part of 2 years. I only switched off for a few months during the start of covid to put together a covid tracking site for the paper.
By exposing such a multi-million dollar business, do you fear or encounter harassment?
I've never been in fear of my safety. As for harassment, you get some occasionally.
I don't know if I would say this rises to the level of harassment but I was out walking around the neighborhood a month or so ago and a couple guys in a truck pulled up next to me and the guy in the passenger seat asked if I was "that reporter writing about the battery place". I said, I was one of them, yes, and he told me "we don't appreciate you around here" and started spouting off a bunch of incorrect facts about the story and warned me I should move my car because there's a lot of truck traffic and he "can't take responsibility if something happens to it" where it's parked now.
What good do you think an OSHA fine does in terms of helping wronged employees?
The fine? Nothing. The forced abatement of issues? Will help current and future workers. For workers that have been harmed already, there may be legal redress. One worker has filed a lawsuit and we're told that dozens more are in conversations with the same lawyer and expect to file claims.
What do you think next steps are for OSHA? Or for the EPA? Or for local government? Or for the company?
Is anything going to change?
As far as the OSHA case goes, Gopher has contested the findings so the inspection is still pending.
The investigation from the EPC (which is like a local version of the EPA) more than a dozen violations and are currently in penalty phase deciding the fines.
U.S. Rep Cathy Castor released a statement and said she would be sharing the reports with the DOJ and EPA.
Have you looked into the coal fired Tampa Bay power plant? I didn't hear about this lead smelter but it's the second pollutant I hear about associated with Tampa in a few days.
Yes, the TECO Big Bend power station is actually the second largest lead-in-air polluter in Hillsborough County. We didn't dive into it in this story but our colleagues have reported on issues at TECO in the past. https://projects.tampabay.com/projects/2017/investigations/tampa-electric/big-bend-hellfire-from-above/
Great work! Do any of you have any personal highlight or lowlights from your time spent doing the investigation you’d be willing to share?
For me, one moment I will never forget is when we went to the house of a former factory manager for the first time. His wife answered the door and we introduced ourselves and explained that we were investigating lead poisoning at the lead smelter in Tampa. She burst into tears. They had been living their own personal nightmare since their son was born with an elevated blood lead level likely due to take-home lead from his dad's job and finally someone was here to listen to their story.
So, did you get to tour the facility?
The reason I ask is that, I did a series of construction inspections on a facility that recycled lead batteries here in Virginia. This was a small operation, a single 3000 SF cinder block building with a portion of the building dedicated to tearing down old car batteries. The acid from the batteries had eaten through an interior cinder block demising wall, and the floor was literally covered with a dull gray metallic sheen. I spent as little time in that particular room as possible, knowing exactly what I was looking at, and wondering what happened to the people who had worked there.
Thank you for showing up for those workers in Florida. Good on you for getting OSHA involved.
No, we haven't stepped foot inside the factory but we obtained a lot of photos and videos of the inside from workers. They also have a battery breaking room that sounds a lot like you've described. There are photos here.
Part 1 mentions the occupational health provider who was responsible for evaluating the employees & clearing them for work. Has there been any action taken against the physician/practice as a result of your reporting?
Not to our knowledge.
Does the DeSantis administration care at all? I find that they do little and care little unless they can score some political points out of helping constituents.
I'm not sure that DeSantis is aware of this factory. Local politicians like Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and U.S. Rep Cathy Castor have called for increased oversight and investigations from state and federal regulators.
I’m a Tampa native born and bred here, how does this effect the bay? Especially near the Apollo beach area?
Gopher was fined $8k after dumping contaminated stormwater into the Palm River which empties into the bay about 10 miles north of Apollo beach.
Did OSHA shut them down until the issues were resolved? I feel like that would have more of an impact than the fine.
They did not. The company is contesting OSHA's findings and the case is still pending. https://www.osha.gov/pls/imis/establishment.inspection_detail?id=1523378.015
This is concerning -- I moved out of Tampa 3.5 years ago. In what areas of Tampa were residents affected? Should I, as a former resident, be concerned for my health?
The smelter is located in East Tampa, in the Uceta Gardens neighborhood. If you are at all concerned about being exposed to lead, you can take a blood lead screening test - ask your doctor. Keep in mind that there are multiple ways you can be exposed to lead so having lead in your blood does not necessarily mean it came from Gopher.
We primarily focus on the Tampa Bay area but we also cover stories around the state. If you have more info, feel free to contact me by email at [email protected]
A quick Google search makes it look like Gopher Resource brings in over $100,000,000 per year, so the fine was 0.3% of a single year's revenue. How does this give them any incentive whatsoever to fix the problems?
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