By KARL BELIN
Stunning reporting by the Tampa Bay Times has revealed that hundreds of workers at Gopher Resource, Florida’s only lead smelter, have been exposed to nightmarish amounts of heavy metals over the course of several decades. Working 12-hour shifts extracting lead—a deadly neurotoxic metal—from up to 50,000 used automotive batteries per day, Gopher employees toil away in conditions where poisonous smoke containing not only lead but carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide is so thick that only the dim glow of the furnace can be seen. At the end of the day, reports the Times, workers look as if they have been “dipped in powdered sugar,” caked in lead dust from head to toe.
The 18-month investigation found that terrifying health and safety conditions in the plant caused the illnesses of hundreds of workers and their families. Air contamination was, on average, seven times higher than company-issued respirators were rated to handle, and lead levels in the air were hundreds of times higher than the federally mandated limit. In 2015 one worker had to be rescued after passing out on the floor of the plant due to the fact that the air-lead concentration was 15 times higher than his respirator was rated for. “It was like someone turned my lights out,” he told the Times.
Eighty percent of workers tested between 2014 and 2018 had blood lead levels that put them at extreme risk of high blood pressure, organ failure, and cardiovascular disease. Over 450 blood tests showed lead levels above 25 parts per micro-liter, the federal limit. More than a dozen workers in the last five years have already suffered heart attacks or strokes. One worker, a 30-year veteran at the company, has died at only 56 from kidney disease.
Bosses disabled portions of the ventilation systems that were too costly or time consuming to repair, and many components were inadequate for handling the volume of contaminants in the factory. Workers with high levels of lead in their blood were regularly disciplined for “not washing up properly,” and those who tested high were suspended without pay or in some cases even fined by the company. Fully aware of the conditions these workers faced, Gopher Resource did everything in its power to cover up the facts. Company doctors not only lied on paperwork reporting working conditions to state and federal authorities, they also cleared workers showing signs of lead poisoning to return to duty and did not alert them when they tested high.
Some Gopher employees went to extreme lengths to lower the lead levels in their blood in order to avoid punishment by the company. Most horrifying of all, some workers donated large quantities of blood to temporarily reduce their levels before being tested, potentially exposing hundreds of unknowing transfusion recipients to contaminated blood. The children and spouses of workers have also tested for high levels of lead exposure, as the dust permeates everything and is inevitably brought home in clothes and hair. The smelter is only a short distance from an elementary school and residential neighborhood; it is unknown what effects it has had and will continue to have on other working families in the neighborhoods surrounding the plant—potentially for generations to come.
Federal regulators have not inspected the plant in over five years, as the local OSHA office (located just five miles from the plant) uses a lottery system to determine which factories to inspect for proper lead disposal each year. In years when inspectors were testing the smelter, OSHA warned Gopher Resource before every inspection, allowing management to mount a deep cleaning effort before they arrived. Regulators also failed to test the factory for toxic sulfur dioxide, which was known to be off-gassing from the smelter, testing instead for sulfuric acid that could potentially erode machinery. Some inspections were limited to the factory smoke stack, as investigators insisted this was the only possible point of leakage.
The entire tragedy at Gopher Resource has proven in the starkest terms that only organization can protect the working class from the merciless exploitation of the capitalists and the ineptitude of the state. Had the workers at the smelter been organized, they could have struck as one to demand that the company repair and upgrade safety equipment. By withdrawing their labor and building a movement of community members, they could have forced OSHA and other regulatory agencies to investigate the murderous conditions of the workplace.
However, the “right-to-work” laws enshrined in the Florida constitution make it incredibly difficult for workers in the state to organize and fight back against the bosses. The goal of these laws is to protect companies like Gopher Resource and many others in Florida that see working people as lambs for the slaughter.
The labor movement must respond!
Several class action cases are now underway against Gopher Resource, with many current and former workers fighting for compensation for their untold suffering. Local authorities are also testing nearby residents for lead exposure, and several community meetings have documented the potential harm such exposure can cause to locals. However, the plant continues to operate, and the hellish smelter still glows day and night.
The case of the workers at Gopher Resource cannot be allowed to linger in the courts for years on end. Only a mass movement of working people can ensure that the boss class and their politicians are held liable for the untold damage done. Only the labor movement has the resources to carry the fight out to the end by sending lawyers and organizers to Tampa to build the kind of campaign necessary to get justice.
We call on the AFL-CIO of Florida and all unions nationally and internationally to take up the following demands and actions in defense of the Gopher workers:
- For the immediate arrest of the owners, managers, and company doctors of Gopher Resource for knowingly poisoning hundreds, if not thousands, of working people.
- Organize all current and former Gopher workers in the union of their choosing with an elected leadership from their own ranks.
- Organize community committees in neighborhoods affected by the plant to oversee the testing and treatment of community members exposed to toxic chemicals. Free quality health care for all affected residents!
- For the immediate expropriation of all Gopher Resource facilities and assets, to be placed under the control of the affected workers and communities.
- If it cannot be run safely, dismantle the smelter and sell off all equipment and machinery with proceeds to directly benefit affected workers and communities. Guarantee employment or compensation for all current employees with no loss of pay.
- Place the land under the control of community committees to oversee environmental remediation.
- Immediately repeal all anti-worker “right-to-work” laws and the Taft-Hartley Act, which makes such laws possible.
If the capitalists, their politicians, their cops and their courts refuse to take proper measures to hold Gopher’s management accountable, and provide healthy conditions for the workers, their families, and the surrounding community, the labor movement should undertake further action. For example, a solidarity strike of all organized and unorganized workers in the state of Florida might be considered. This should include state workers who are currently prohibited from strike action by the state’s draconian constitution.
Photo: The Gopher Resource plant (Tampa Bay Times)