Revisiting the Gopher Resource Lead Smelter Disaster

More than one year since Tampa Bay Times’ exposé brought to light the toxic working conditions at Gopher Resource, the lead smelting plant has been fined nearly $1 million for a host of safety and environmental violations. But this penalty does little for the workers, their families and the surrounding community still reeling from the negative health effects of the factory’s years of negligence. As the legal fight for the victims continues, we must remember what caused this crisis.

Years of Violations Compound Toxic Working Conditions

The levels of lead in the air at Gopher Resource were found to be hundreds of times higher than the federal limit, and seven times what the company-issued respirators could protect against. Workers were also exposed to cadmium and arsenic (both carcinogens), carbon monoxide, and life-threatening levels of sulfur dioxide.

Despite being aware of the copious toxins in the air, Gopher disabled ventilation features that captured fumes. The company also did not fix faulty mechanical systems in a timely manner, nor did they report breakdowns in equipment that could negatively affect the factory’s emissions.

Impacting the Health of Workers—and Their Families

A staggering 80% of Gopher employees have suffered from increased blood pressure, kidney dysfunction, and cardiovascular disease between 2014 and 2018 due to chronic lead exposure. The lead dust also caused workers to experience dizziness, dehydration, and shortness of breath, increasing the frequency of workplace accidents such as burns.

After grueling 12-hour shifts, employees unwittingly brought lead dust home on their shoes and clothes, exposing their families to the toxin. This is particularly alarming because lead exposure can cause intellectual disability and behavioral disorders in children. Pregnant women exposed to lead are at increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, and low birth weight.

Failing Employees at Every Turn

The Times’ investigation found that OSHA hadn’t inspected the inside of the smelter in five years. When they did, their inspections were cursory, inaccurate, and announced far in advance, giving the factory time to clean up. A Gopher-contracted doctor also declined to warn workers of the health risks associated with their dangerously high blood lead levels. Gopher awarded bonuses to employees who could keep their blood level down, leading some to resort to dangerous means of stripping the metal from their bodies.

Harm to the Surrounding Community

Toxic lead emissions from Gopher Resource spread to the nearby community as well. The smelter discharged contaminated water into Palm River, which sent toxic waste into Tampa’s sewage system. The factory also discarded hazardous waste inappropriately and dumped dangerous material into a landfill close to a residential area. Lead levels were so high that an air pollution notice was issued, ordering residents to limit their time outdoors. Thousands of residents were impacted by Gopher’s blatant disregard for health and safety.

Help is Available

            Gopher Resource’s actions were inhumane and senseless—but there is hope. All victims are entitled to compensation. If you were harmed by Gopher Resource’s willful negligence, talk to our experienced environmental legal team at Napoli Shkolnik PLLC to get the justice you deserve.