A look inside Florida’s only lead smelter
What’s it like inside Florida’s only lead smelter? Tampa Bay Times reporters obtained from current and former workers hundreds of photos and videos taken at the factory where 50,000 used car batteries are recycled each day. The lead is melted down and reforged into new blocks. The work can be dirty and each step comes with its own hazards. Many of these images show workers in unclean and dangerous conditions, sometimes narrowly escaping serious injury. Here is a collection of some of them:
The raw materials processing center
At Gopher Resource in Tampa, battery recycling works in multiple stages. First, machines remove lead from batteries and separate it from other components, like the plastic shells and acid. To start the process, workers load batteries into a hammermill, which crushes them.
As lead is being retrieved from the broken batteries, pieces of plastic, acid and lead often fall to the ground, landing in areas underneath the equipment. Federal rules require the cleaning of this residue to prevent injury and contamination. For the past eight months, however, the battery waste went unaddressed.
But when OSHA showed up on April 5, the area was much cleaner. Workers had shoveled the sludge over the weekend.
In another area of the raw materials processing center, called the battery-breaking room, large industrial batteries are cracked open over a metal plate. Stagnant acid had eaten at the concrete floor, causing significant damage. Potholes caused by the acid and battery-breaking created a hazard for forklift drivers who needed to maneuver in and out of the room. Workers have fallen because it’s so slippery. Gopher began work on a new floor just days before OSHA inspectors showed up for the first time in five years.
After lead is salvaged from batteries, workers use loader trucks to scoop the metal and feed it into furnaces, which are heated to around 1,500 degrees. The lead is liquified here and some impurities are separated from the molten metal. The furnace department is the dustiest area of the plant, recording air-lead levels hundreds of times above the federal limit in recent years. Fumes have spewed from the furnaces into the workspace, escaping from inadequate ventilation. The ventilation system has suffered from clogged pipes and exhaust hoods that were too small. Dust has accumulated in areas above the furnace, dropping suddenly like an eruption of ash and scorching workers below.
Images from the furnace department show how bad the dust storms can get inside the factory. In some cases, the dust and fumes have become so thick that visibility is reduced to almost zero, creating near white-out like conditions.
Molten lead from the furnace glides through chutes into kettles in the refinery. Workers mix in chemicals, such as sulfur and sodium nitrate. Impurities float to the top where workers skim off the byproduct and sometimes get hit by a shot of fumes. The byproduct is shoveled into containers and later sold to another company for further processing. Videos have shown the liquid metal becoming volatile in the kettles, thrashing like rough ocean water. Sometimes, explosions occur and send the molten lead flying. After refining, the liquid lead is poured into molds and cooled to form solid blocks that are sold.
Throughout the process, dust and fumes are sucked into the plant's ventilation system and routed to the baghouse, which captures the dust before it can be released into the atmosphere. The baghouse has a grid of rooms called cells. The dirty air or gas stream enters from the bottom of the cell and flows through bags that hang floor-to-ceiling. The bags catch and filter contaminated particles. The bags must be shaken regularly to clean the dust out of them. The dust then falls into a hopper below and is conveyed for further processing. Workers have had to manually shake the bags when the automated system went down, causing them to enter the small rooms sometimes overwhelmed by dust and gases. Some workers passed out, either from extreme heat or fumes, after trips inside. When other mechanical systems have gone down, they’ve had to shovel contaminated dust from mounds beneath the baghouse that looked like small sand dunes.
Acid and water mixed with lead dust are sent to the wastewater treatment section of the plant to be diluted and neutralized before being released into the city's wastewater system. Problems in this section have caused harmful gas levels to spike. At least two employees have passed out in this section of the plant after being overwhelmed by fumes.
Leaving the plant
Workers must clean off after every shift. Gopher provides locker rooms in the hygiene area of the property, which is separate from the plant. Following the Times’ reporting on conditions at the factory, Gopher made fixes to lingering problems that could result in higher exposures or workers carrying lead home to their children, including placing down mats in the dirty locker room to remove lead from workers' shoes and fixing a malfunctioning air-shower system. Gopher has said the fixes were not in response to the newsroom’s investigation.
Read the rest of Poisoned at tampabay.com/poisoned
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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.