TAMPA, Fla — The Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County (EPC) on Thursday lifted the air pollution precaution for pollutant lead near battery recycling plant Gopher Resource Inc.
In February, the EPC had issued its first-ever air pollution precaution after a sample showed lead pollution in the area was more than five times the federally-regulated amount.
At the time, the EPC advised individuals in the vicinity of the plant to reduce prolonged outdoor activities until further notice.
"Unlike other air pollutants that are gaseous and can temporarily irritate lung tissue, lead emissions can be ingested and settle within the body, having a toxic effect on both humans and animals," the February precaution read, in part.
Gopher Resource, located on Jewel Avenue in Tampa, is a lead battery recycling plant. The company takes apart car batteries, melts them down, and turns them into new batteries.
"Lead is one of those toxic chemicals that can affect anyone," EPC Air Division Director Reginald Sanford said. "Any person, and really any animal. What happens is that when it is ingested and gets into the blood system it can affect the nervous system, the cardiovascular system. It has a particularly hard influence on the brain development of children."
When the situation was first announced, the EPC was not certain of the exact area impacted by the high lead levels that were documented. The expectation was that the impact was smaller than a few miles radius.
"We don’t know how far the omissions are going to travel but there is a good thing about this whole circumstance," Sanford said. "Lead is a heavy element but we don’t expect it to travel for miles in miles. We expect the area of impact to be nearby."
The first precaution was issued on Feb. 18. Since then, the EPC says it has received data that shows lead concentrations have declined around the plant.
"Data analyzed as recently as February 28, 2022 indicates the daily lead concentration levels around the plant are below 0.15 ug/m3 and the current average three-month concentration is 0.08 ug/m3 . On average, the national ambient air quality standard established to protect public health is 0.15 ug/m3 when averaged over three consecutive months. Therefore, EPC is rescinding the precautionary statement based on this new information," the EPC wrote in an update sent to 10 Tampa Bay.
Even at the time the now-rescinded notice was issued, EPC officials had made clear that Gopher Resource was not in violation of federal standards because its three-month average of lead concentrations fell below 0.15 ug/m3, at 0.12 ug/m3.
But, the commission did notify the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Lead pollution is checked regularly in accordance with a publicly-posted schedule. When asked if companies operate differently when a scheduled testing date is approaching, Sanford said he hopes the continued random testing will help them find out.
"That has been a suggestion," Sanford said. "I think part of the random sampling that we do will help get at answering that question.
In February, Sanford said Gopher Resource could potentially face fines into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for high lead emissions. The EPC met with Gopher Resource to ensure steps were taken to keep lead pollution levels low, as they have since been confirmed to be.
In a prior statement from Gopher Resource, the company highlighted the length of time that passed between the high lead level reading and the advisory notice.
"On Friday, Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) provided Gopher with data showing unusual readings from an air monitor on two days in January. The higher of those two readings was collected more than six weeks ago," read the statement, in part.
The company said it regularly has readings consistently well below air quality standards.
Gopher said it took the advisory seriously and implemented enhanced safety measures in response. The company plans to conduct "an investigation into the cause of those readings."