The operator of a lead smelter that has recently come under fire sent a letter to the Hillsborough County Commission outlining its steps to ensure worker safety and keep its environmental impact to a minimum.
Gopher Resource is one of a handful of companies nationwide that recycles lead batteries, most commonly used in cars. Its Tampa facility was the subject of a Tampa Bay Times series, “Poisoned,” that alleged the company had exposed workers and residents in the surrounding area to toxic levels of lead.
Since its publication, many area leaders have called for official investigations into worker conditions at the facility and studies into its environmental impacts.
In the letter, Gopher Resource president and CEO Brian Leen told the commission that the company “welcomes and is cooperating with the governmental inspections that are underway, and we look forward to both the OSHA and Hillsborough County EPC reports when they are complete.”
In that commission testimony Mr. Woodard shared that when Gopher bought the plant, ”they spent millions of dollars in soil remediation and clean-up of the surrounding area and then enclosed the plant to prevent exposure in the community.”
Dougherty informed commissioners Gopher’s investment in state-of-the-art pollution control technology resulted in a “significant decrease in emissions” over the years and confirmed — based on a long history of inspections and cooperation — that the company is in compliance.
Dr. Holt remarked that due to the low emissions from the plant, the risk of contamination in the surrounding area is “extremely low” and said he did not think broad based community testing was necessary.”
In his follow up letter Leen also noted the role Gopher Resource plays in overall environmental health through its core business of recycling lead batteries.
“This service is essential to our environment and our modern economy. Our society uses so many of these lead batteries that Gopher’s facility in Tampa recycles about 13 million batteries every year. Gopher is part of a success story for the lead battery industry, which can claim a stunning 99% recycling rate in the U.S., keeping them out of landfills,” he said.
Leen said protecting employees was a “core value” of the company and that safety measures include requirements that employees wear proper gear and receive adequate training — more than 8,000 hours of it a year — to protect themselves and the environment from lead exposure.
“Gopher spends millions of dollars a year on this equipment, even going further than regulators’ guidelines. Gopher began in 1946 as a family-owned business, building a reputation over 75 years for taking care of our employees and the neighborhoods and communities in which we operate,” he wrote, noting that the company spent $230 million on modernization and improvement efforts when it bought the facility in 2006.
“We created local jobs that paid well and provide strong benefits. We also dedicate about $3 million a year on personal protective equipment, training, testing and monitoring for our workers,” he continued. “Many of Gopher’s 320 employees come from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds, and we’re proud that we have helped many move up the ladder of economic success. We estimate that Gopher Tampa adds about $40 million per year to the Tampa economy.”
Leen highlighted some environmental metrics, including an 89% improvement to air quality around the plant since 2012, which is a full 67% below the air quality threshold issued by the U.S. EPA. The company has also added new leadership well-versed in safety; in 2019, the plant increased safety spending by 50%.
“We also developed and implemented a hygiene program and tools that we believe are industry-leading and, if rigorously followed, enables continued reduction of employee lead levels and will prevent lead from leaving the plant with the employee,” he said, attaching a rundown of the plan to the letter.
The letter comes ahead of a Wednesday town hall meeting to discuss Gopher Resource. Hosted by County Commissioner Gwen Myers, the meeting is expected to include Tamp Councilman Orlando Gudes and School Board member Henry “Shake” Washington, as well as representatives from the Florida Department of Health, Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission, and the office of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor.
A copy of the letter and a flyer with details on the Town Hall meeting are below.