What happens at Florida’s lone lead smelter

Aerial photograph of Gopher Resource.
Aerial photograph of Gopher Resource. [ LUIS SANTANA  | Times ]

What does Gopher do? Gopher Resource recycles lead-acid batteries. The plant is called a secondary lead smelter because it doesn’t actually produce new lead from ore; it recycles lead that already exists. (There are no more primary lead smelters in the United States.) The recycling process works like this: used batteries are broken open, the lead is extracted and then melted in furnaces and purified with chemicals in the refinery. It’s then poured into molds and sold as new blocks. Those blocks go to companies that include battery and ammunition manufacturers.

What are the dangers? During the battery breaking, lead smelting and refining processes, poisonous lead dust and fumes are released into the air, exposing workers. The dust then coats the pipes and floor inside the plant. Molten lead is also a danger, sometimes splashing workers during chemical explosions. Workers also can be exposed to other toxic substances, including cadmium, arsenic and sulfur dioxide.

What is a baghouse? At Gopher, this is a multi-story building that plays one of the most important roles in protecting the community from pollution. It is designed to receive and filter the dangerous dust created in other areas of the plant. The dust travels to the baghouse through a system of pipes and vents and is routed to small, cell-like rooms. Inside are cloth bags. At regular intervals throughout the day, the bags dump the dust into a hopper after becoming too full. The dust then travels by way of a conveyor belt system to a large mixing machine, where it’s treated with water and chemicals and ultimately discharged into the city of Tampa’s wastewater system.

What’s the danger? Workers emerged covered in dust that was laden with lead and cancer-causing cadmium. Sometimes they passed out because of the heat and the fumes. Often their respirators were overwhelmed. Their skin developed rashes. Some workers saw the lead shoot up in their blood. Others were whisked to the hospital after their bodies seized up. Multiple baghouse veterans report lingering body pains, heart and breathing problems.

Under the best circumstances, an automatic device empties the bags. But because of design and engineering flaws, the automatic function didn’t work for years. Workers were forced to enter the cells and manually shake the bags, amid soaring temperatures and gas levels.

The assembly line-like system that transports the dust jammed often; workers got blanketed in poisons trying to fix the machines. Workers also have been overwhelmed by the dust swarms that overtook the lower level of the baghouse.

Why did workers shake the dust bags? Gopher’s lead-making process is delicate and interconnected. A dust-clogged baghouse can shut down the entire furnace department and bring the production of lead to a halt. The company estimates it loses $500 every minute the furnaces aren’t operating.

What are furnace exhaust hoods? Furnace exhaust hoods are designed to capture gases, dust and fumes that are released during the lead-smelting process. The hoods are supposed to vent the poisonous substances out of the work area and into ducts that travel to the baghouse.

What are refining kettles? Refining kettles are huge circular containers into which molten lead is poured and chemicals are added to rid the metal of impurities. Workers add a variety of different substances to the kettles, including calcium and arsenic.

We want to talk with you

Do you live in the neighborhoods of Grant Park, Oak Park, Florence Villa, Dixie Farms or Uceta Gardens in Hillsborough County? And do you suffer from these health issues?

  • Heart ailments
  • Kidney disease
  • Infertility
  • Hypertension
  • Muscle weakness
  • Behavioral problems
  • Reduced attention span
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Debilitating headaches

These are among the factors associated with high levels of lead exposure. Please contact us if you are interested in talking.