Expert Commentary

How they did it: Tampa Bay Times reporters expose high airborne lead levels at Florida recycling factory

Their 18-month investigation also reveals why regulators failed to correct the problem and its impact on workers and the surrounding community.

lead air Gopher factory investigation Goldsmith Prize Tampa Bay Times
Eli Murray and Corey G. Johnson, two of the three Tampa Bay Times reporters who investigated airborne lead at a Florida factory, collected soil samples to check for lead in the community. (James Borchuck/Times)

When investigative journalist Corey G. Johnson started working at the Tampa Bay Times in 2017, he had been following national news coverage of lead poisoning in the public water supply in Flint, Michigan, where he spent summers as a kid visiting family.

Johnson decided to look into lead in Hillsborough County public schools and reported in 2018 that school district officials had found elevated levels on some campuses but didn’t tell families for 16 months — until he began asking parents what they knew about the tests. Amid that investigation, a source handed him a state health report showing Hillsborough had the highest number of adults diagnosed with lead poisoning of any of Florida’s 67 counties. The report pointed to an unnamed battery recycler as the key culprit.

After some digging, Johnson identified the recycler as the last lead smelter operating in the state. He also learned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had cited its owner, Gopher Resource, as a significant lead polluter.

“It turns out the EPA had issued a report looking at all the places in the country that were out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, the federal act on pollution,” Johnson says. “In the report, there was one place in Florida that was in violation for lead and that one place was in Hillsborough County.”

Johnson teamed up with two other journalists at the news outlet — investigative reporter Rebecca Woolington and data reporter Eli Murray — to find out what was going on there. Their 18-month investigation, chronicled in a three-part series published last year, exposes a host of serious problems at the factory and in the surrounding community.

What the journalists uncovered

The plant employs more than 300 people and recycles about 50,000 used car batteries a day. The lead they contain is toxic to humans and, at high levels, can cause kidney and brain damage and even death. It’s especially dangerous for children because their bodies are more sensitive to its effects. Even low levels of lead in their blood can result in lower IQ scores, learning difficulties, hyperactivity and developmental delays, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Johnson, Woolington and Murray’s series, “Poisoned,” reveals workers were exposed to airborne lead at levels hundreds of times higher than the federal government allows, and some inadvertently took lead dust home and exposed their children. And while officials at Gopher Resource knew the plant had too much lead dust, key features of its ventilation system had been dismantled or turned off, the journalists reported. Respirators issued to workers did not provide sufficient protection for the levels of lead circulating inside the factory.

Some of the other main findings:

  • “Eight out of 10 workers from 2014 to 2018 had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of increased blood pressure, kidney dysfunction or cardiovascular disease,” they write. “In the past five years, at least 14 current and former workers have had heart attacks or strokes, some after working in the most contaminated areas of the plant. One employee spent more than three decades around the poison before dying of heart and kidney disease at 56.”
  • The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency in charge of workplace health and safety, “has repeatedly bungled the job at Gopher, allowing hazardous conditions to persist for years,” the journalists write. “OSHA gave Gopher ample warning before site visits, which meant the company had time to deep-clean a factory coated with lead. The agency sent inspectors who missed evidence of dangerous levels of lead in the air, or who made other critical errors, including testing for the wrong chemical after workers complained about high gas exposure.” They note that OSHA stopped inspecting Gopher altogether five years before Johnson, Woolington and Murray began investigating.
  • The factory polluted the air and water outside its walls.  “In the past six years, Gopher repeatedly discharged polluted water into the Palm River, sent too many chemicals into Tampa’s sewer system, and mishandled hazardous waste,” according to the series. “It erroneously shipped tons of a dangerous material to a landfill near a residential community in Polk County at least twice. Gopher reported the error, and state regulators forced the company to dig up the waste.”

In spring 2021, in response to the Tampa Bay Times investigation, two members of Congress from the Tampa area asked the U.S. Department of Labor to look into the plant’s practices. Shortly afterward, OSHA launched a six-month inspection and ultimately cited Gopher for 44 violations, including one for willfully exposing workers to high levels of lead.

In the midst of that review, the global credit-rating agency Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Gopher’s credit rating to “very high credit risk,” potentially making it more difficult and expensive for the company to borrow money.

Meanwhile, county regulators conducted their own inspection and found more than two dozen possible violations. OSHA and Hillsborough County’s Environmental Protection Commission levied a total of $837,000 in fines.

The series prompted other changes as well.

“Local health officials screened neighborhood children for lead,” the news outlet reported in February. “And regulators strengthened oversight of Gopher’s air pollution by adding random testing to monitor the company’s emissions. A former worker sued the company on behalf of his lead-poisoned child. Nationally, public health officials cited the Times series to push for changes in federal rules that would better protect thousands of workers from the dangers of lead poisoning.”

Projects such as this one are a mammoth undertaking, considering the amount of time, resources and skill that go into it. We asked members of the reporting team what they think made their series so successful. Here are five of the biggest reasons:

They read all they could find about the company and its factory, including the laws and regulations governing them.

Private companies often aren’t required to share their records and other information with the public or regulators. To learn how a particular business operates and better understand its history, Johnson says it’s crucial for journalists to read all they can find in public documents, including federal and local laws and regulations outlining what companies can and cannot do and are required to do.

He says one sentence in a lengthy federal report from the Environmental Protection Agency helped him track down the name of the company that owned the Tampa factory mentioned in the state health report that spurred the Times’ investigation. Reading federal laws governing companies like Gopher Resource helped the Times devise strategies for obtaining records detailing what was going on inside the plant.

The three journalists asked workers to share copies of their personal medical records and some did. After realizing federal law gives employees access to the factory’s confidential reports on air-lead concentrations, the journalists asked for copies. Dozens of workers from different regions of the plant shared the details they obtained.

Johnson says he lives by the wisdom passed down from veteran journalists Seymour Hersh and I.F. Stone.

“Like the great Seymour Hersh said that he had learned from I.F. Stone: you read before you write,” Johnson says. “Sometimes, stories are weak because the person hasn’t truly read all of what was out there to read in the government reports and things of that nature. I bring that up because investigating a private company, on its face, was daunting. But because we read widely and took the time to read the rules, to read the laws, we found workarounds. We found areas where the walls could be cracked.”

Tedious as it might seem, journalists covering a story like this one must read and reread the rules and regulations governing various aspects of the industry, including how factories must monitor air quality and employee health and safety, Murray says.

“As you start doing more reporting and the pieces fall into place, the rules become increasingly more meaningful,” he says. “You’ll see new things you missed early on. I would suggest to anyone: Get familiar with the rules and get comfortable with them.”

Journalists should keep in mind that “there’s no such thing as a truly hidden problem,” Johnson notes. People usually talk about or write down things they have witnessed, especially if they are harmful, he says. Sometimes, they capture events and information in photos and video recordings.

“It’s just sometimes the dots aren’t connected and because they’re not connected, you’re not seeing it,” he says. “There’s a bigger iceberg behind that little bitty tip that you see.”

Members of the reporting team had complementary skill sets, which made dividing the workload easier.

Johnson, Woolington and Murray worked together on all parts of the series. But they each took the lead on certain aspects of the investigation, based on their talents and skill sets.

“Corey is phenomenal at sourcing and focused mainly on worker interviews and gathering their records, and Eli is an incredible data reporter, who focused on conducting foundational analyses for us on exposure and worker blood-lead levels,” Woolington wrote by email. “I was tasked with serving what we call an anchor role, where I took information that was coming in from worker interviews and data analyses, organized and synthesized it (with loads of involvement from and discussions with Corey and Eli), and then wrote the stories.”

Woolington also consulted with industry and academic experts.

“I created chronologies for each worker, so I could track their health over time and compared their blood lead levels to those associated with health problems in the medical literature,” she wrote. “In talking to one expert, I learned how to estimate the amount of lead in workers’ bones and completed the analysis for one longtime worker, who died of heart and kidney disease at 56. Connecting workers’ chemical exposure to tangible harm was something we all talked a lot about during the reporting process and prioritized at each step.”

They sought specialized training to better understand a highly technical topic and even became certified lead inspectors.

The Times sent the three reporters to Georgia to take the courses needed to earn certifications as lead inspectors. Not only did they learn how to take samples needed to test for lead in soil, they learned about the health risks of lead exposure and regulations imposed by federal agencies, including OSHA and the EPA.

“For me, it made concrete a lot of the more technical details in terms of how lead reacts with the human body and how to measure it,” Murray says. “There were hands-on activities where we learned how to sample different things, like lead in the soil and lead in paint, and the supplies needed and how to make sure you were getting an appropriate sample.”

After completing the training, the journalists took samples of soil outside the Gopher plant to check for contamination in the neighboring community. They gathered about 70 soil samples and sent them off for testing.

Dozens of the samples had elevated levels of lead, the Times reported.

“The highest concentrations were closest to the plant,” the reporters write. “Two results, taken within 1,500 feet, were higher than what the federal government considers dangerous for kids.”

They spoke to employees in person, in their homes.

Had Johnson, Woolington and Murray not been able to earn factory workers’ trust, they would not have been able to dig into the problem as deeply as they did. Employees’ personal stories about what they saw and experienced and how they and their families were affected helped the public understand how dire the situation had become. What employees told the journalists also helped direct their reporting.

Johnson says he knew it would be tough to get employees to share information, so the journalists avoided contacting them at work or on social media.

“We wanted to be very strategic and so those early interviews were crucial,” he explains. “You can’t go do a big Facebook blast of folks. You can’t do willy-nilly email blasting because that stuff gets back [to an employer] and can get leaked.”

Johnson and his colleagues chose to approach workers at their homes, away from their supervisors and coworkers. They spoke with former employees at home, too, in hopes they would be able to speak more freely. The reporters also wanted to do interviews in person so workers could see in their faces that they cared about them and the story.

When you’re trying to get the big story, the big impact — to get past the secrecy — the best way is the old way,” Johnson says. “You have to show up and they have to look you in the eyes and feel your humanity.”

While journalists often use Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms as reporting and interviewing tools, Johnson warns against relying on them too much.

“These tools are convenient — we all use them,” he says. “On some stories in some circumstances, they actually don’t get you what you want and actually work against you. You have to go grab those shoes and burn them on the pavement. You just got to do it.”

They asked for photos and video.

The journalists interviewed more than 100 current or former employees, some of whom shared photographs and videos taken inside the Gopher factory. Those images — featured prominently in the series — allowed the reporting team and the public to see what working conditions were like.

“This story emphasized the importance of always (always, always!) asking your sources for any photographs or video they have to help you understand, prove and tell your story,” Woolington wrote by email. “The photographs and videos we were able to obtain from workers became a foundational part of not only our reporting but also storytelling. They gave us a look inside the factory and allowed us to see the conditions workers were facing. We were also able to provide readers with this same benefit. Describing poisonous dust clouds through writing is one thing. Allowing readers to see the footage and experience it themselves elevates the story to another level of understanding and proof.”

Read the stories

Poisoned Part 1: The Factory

Poisoned Part 2: The Failings

Poisoned Part 3: The Fallout

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