April 9, 2021: Lead battery recycling firm Gopher Resource has called local newspaper reports about its facility in Tampa Bay, Florida ‘false and misleading’, saying it supports an inspection by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which began on April 5.
The company says it has spent more than $230 million on making the facility safe, and that average blood levels among employees were actually half what they were when Gopher bought the plant in 2006.
“Given the recent false and misleading Tampa Bay Times reporting about our facility, we supported calls for the OSHA inspection, welcome it, and will fully co-operate with it,” said a spokesman for the company.
The OSHA inspection follows an 18-month investigation by the Tampa Bay Times that revealed damning levels of harmful lead contamination in workers. Some of them, it claimed, underwent acute medical procedures to minimize the amount of lead in their blood. Blood levels were found to be hundreds of times higher than the federal limit of 50 mcg of lead per m3 of air over an eight-hour shift.
US Congress representatives Kathy Castor and Charlie Crist have called on the US Department of Justice to investigate, saying “workers and their families appear to have been sacrificed in Tampa for the corporate profits of the Gopher lead smelting plant”.
“Nearly every worker was exposed to enough lead to be at risk of serious health problems,” said Crist, a former governor of Florida. “Furthermore, these workers often took the lead-laced dust home with them, placing family members, including children, at risk of exposure.”
One account in the Times reported that Gopher pitted workers against one another by allotting quarterly bonuses based on the average blood-lead level across all employees and naming and shaming workers with high lead levels.
“Confrontations broke out between employees when one felt their bonus was in jeopardy,” said Crist. “Perhaps most disturbing, the Times reports that some workers took drastic measures to keep their blood lead levels low, including undergoing extreme medical procedures such as intravenous chelation therapy which strips the lead from their blood.”
However the firm says blood lead levels have halved since it took over the plant in 2006, and were ‘less than half the level of many state and federal standards for workplace safety, as well as the American College of Governmental and Industrial Hygienists’.
“Protecting our Tampa employees and the surrounding community is a core value of Gopher Resources and its workforce,” the company says. “Since 2006, we have invested more than $230 million to modernize the Tampa facility, which included installation of state-of-the-art pollution control, and health and safety measures including filtration and ventilation. The standards we hold ourselves to are more stringent than regulatory standards.”
Gopher Resource has two facilities, one in Tampa, the other in Eagan, Minnesota.