Key dates in the history of Florida’s only lead smelter
1946: Gopher Resource is founded in Eagan, Minnesota by Irving Kutoff. The company today is owned by a private equity firm, Energy Capital Partners.
1953: Gulf Coast Lead opens its doors in Temple Terrace, where it operates for a decade before moving to East Jewel Avenue in Tampa. The company later changes its name to Gulf Coast Recycling.
1978: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration adopts safety rules saying workers must be removed from lead-contaminated areas if their blood-lead level exceeds 60 micrograms per deciliter. That amount is 12 times what health experts now consider elevated.
SUPPORT GREAT JOURNALISM
Please consider donating to help the Tampa Bay Times bring you more stories like this. Your support means a lot!
2004: State health officials flag Gulf Coast as a significant source of child lead exposure. Years earlier, children at a nearby trailer park had elevated blood-lead levels. Children of workers also were found with lead in their blood.
2006: Gopher Resource acquires Gulf Coast, through its subsidiary company, Envirofocus Technologies LLC.
2008: Updated federal programs on lead safety call for regulators to inspect any company where a single worker has a blood-lead level of 25 micrograms per deciliter or higher. More than 450 Gopher workers tested that high over a recent four-year period, according to company data obtained by the Times. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, tightens its air-quality rules. The new rule drops the amount of lead allowed in the community’s air from 1.5 to .15 micrograms per cubic meter.
2010: Gopher begins a modernization of its Tampa plant, investing more than $140 million to make the factory safer. OSHA fines the company $750 for ventilation problems and failing to post warning signs on the danger of lead. Regulators drop violations related to the overexposure of workers and lead dust as part of a settlement.
2012: Gopher completes construction of its new, fully enclosed plant in Tampa. New ventilation and pollution control systems are designed to protect workers and the community. But mechanical problems occur before the new plant is even finished and air quality for workers inside actually starts to get worse in the coming years, the Times found. OSHA receives a complaint about high levels of sulfur dioxide, a gas that is emitted as exhaust during lead production. It sends an inspector. But regulators investigate the wrong chemical.
2013: The average air-lead readings at the furnace department in Tampa are six times higher than Gopher’s plant in Minnesota. A worker collapses at the Tampa plant. Exposure to sulfur dioxide is the suspected cause.
2014: OSHA receives a referral saying workers aren’t issued proper equipment and are being exposed to lead at high levels. The agency sends an inspector but issues no citations. Internal documents show the company had months earlier recorded soaring levels of lead and cadmium, including a worker exposed to an air-lead concentration of 172,655 micrograms per cubic meter. It is the last time OSHA has inspected the factory for lead contamination.
2015: An air monitoring reading captures a level above 200,000 micrograms per cubic meter, which is beyond the level federal officials consider potentially life-threatening. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updates its definition of an elevated blood-lead level for adults from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5. The average American adult has a blood-lead level below 1.
2016: Workers complain again about sulfur dioxide. This time, OSHA sends an inspector who looks at the correct chemical. But the inspector only tests outside the plant. Problems had been noted inside the plant.
2017: A consultant report finds severe clogging of the Gopher ventilation system. The company had removed exhaust hoods that would have captured lead fumes. Another consultant report finds a third of furnace and refinery workers tested during an exposure study had respirators that weren’t strong enough. An email bulletin is sent to Gopher supervisors warning of life-threatening levels of sulfur dioxide. No OSHA inspection occurs this year.
2018: Another worker loses consciousness after inhaling chemicals. No OSHA inspection occurs this year.
2019: Internal air readings at the Tampa plant show air-lead levels remain hundreds of times higher than the federal limit. At least eight workers are overexposed to lead, records show. One worker’s exposure level is 1,476 percent higher than his respirator can handle. A respirator assignment list later shows that only a handful of workers had a more powerful respirator at the time. No OSHA inspection occurs this year.
2020: Photos show plumes of dust escaping the furnace. Another worker is injured, burning him to the bone. No OSHA inspection occurs this year.
2021: Photos show a partially-clogged ventilation pipe. To date, no OSHA inspection has occurred.
Please support investigative journalism
Projects like Poisoned are important and expensive. More than 25 journalists participated in our lead reporting initiative at the Tampa Bay Times over the past two years.
You can support investigative reporting at the Tampa Bay Times by contributing to our Tampa Bay Times Investigative Fund.
We have established a goal of raising enough money from the community to support our watchdog reporting team in our newsroom. The costs would cover salaries and benefits for one editor and four reporters, as well as health benefits, legal expenses, travel and reporting costs. That amounts to about $500,000 a year. Our goal to start is to raise two years’ worth of funds – or $1 million – to sustain our investigative reporting operation through 2022.
You can donate by clicking on the button below:Donate
You also can donate by check, made out to the Poynter Institute, our nonprofit owner. Please put the name of the fund, “Tampa Bay Times Investigative Fund,” in the check’s subject line.
Tampa Bay Times Investigative Fund
C/O Poynter Institute, 801 Third St. S,
St. Petersburg, FL 33701
For more information, contact Annica Keeler, development and community relations director, at [email protected] or 727-892-2264.
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
- 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.