Former worker sues Tampa lead factory over child’s alleged exposure

8 On Your Side

TAMPA (WFLA) – A new lawsuit details disturbing allegations against a lead-smelting plant in Tampa. According to a former worker at Gopher Resource, the toxic dust made him and his little boy sick.

In the video above, you can see white steam rising from Gopher Resource in Tampa. This is where workers extract and melt lead to sell it.

On Wednesday, former employee Ko Brown shared pictures allegedly taken inside the factory. The pictures show a facility covered with dust that Brown says contains toxic levels of lead.

“The respirators that we were given to work with, they were inefficient for the work that we were doing,” he said.

Brown started working at the facility in 2011, he says he did 12-hour shifts at least four days a week for six years.

“I also supervised men that were young that were getting sick,” said Brown, “..all of them were experiencing hypertension, which we all know as high blood pressure from the elevated levels of lead we were dealing with.”

According to Brown, his blood contained high levels of lead and his health became progressively worse and says he’s convinced he carried the dangerous dust home to his wife and son.

“He came out, ten fingers, ten toes, I was happy,” said Brown. “Three months later we found out his lead was an issue … he was born with lead in his system”

High-profile civil rights attorney Ben Crump filed a lawsuit in the 13th Judicial Circuit on Wednesday.

Crump says Gopher Resource, LLC had faulty mechanical systems and allegedly didn’t provide proper ventilation or adequate protective gear.

The result: employees suffered from heart attacks, diagnosed with kidney disease and high blood pressure.

“Gopher knew what was happening to its workers and they sent them back to the furnace anyway,” said Crump.

8 On Your Side contacted Gopher Resource about the allegations, and we’re still awaiting their reply.

But the Minnesota-based company previously told the Tampa Bay Times they’ve invested $140 million to keep employees safe.

Since acquiring the plant in 2006, Gopher told the Times they have cut average employee blood-lead levels in half.

Brown says his son has many medical issues and didn’t speak until he was nearly 3 years old.

“As painful as it is to state, he won’t have a normal life because he was a lead baby,” Crump added. “That is the feet of Gopher resource factory. Simple and plain.”

Crump says at least 16 children have been exposed to lead and they all had one thing in common: their parent worked at this factory.

On its website, Gopher states it’s been around for 75 years with its purpose to offer the safe and efficient recycling of lead batteries throughout North America.

Gopher Resource sent 8 On Your Side a statement following the press conference:

We have not been served with the lawsuit and cannot comment on its specifics, and it’s not our policy to publicly discuss pending litigation. However, based on what we have seen from media coverage, it seems that the allegations made today are not new, as they were reported in the local newspaper months ago. 

Gopher Resource is committed to protecting the health and safety of our employees, their families, and the surrounding community in Tampa. In the attached May 10th letter to the community, we highlighted our commitment, which includes an investment of more than $230 million to modernize the Tampa facility. Thanks to new state-of-the art pollution controls, health and safety measures that are more stringent than regulatory standards, and our ongoing commitment to employee safety and training, we have achieved a 15year sustained decline in the average lead level in employees. 

During the past two months, regulating agencies including OSHA and the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission have been inspecting our facility, and we are cooperating fully with these inspections and look forward to their findings, which will help us prioritize our efforts. Our overriding core value at Gopher is “Protecting People and Communities”. This drives everything we do as we continue our vision of safety excellence. 

Gopher Resource

8 On Your Side is working to determine which agency is in charge of inspecting the factory.

You can read a copy of the lawsuit here:

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