A national journalism foundation has recognized the work of Tampa Bay Times journalists who investigated and reported on what is described as rampant lead poisoning and major regulatory failures at Florida’s only lead smelter, Gopher Resource.
Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray won the April Sidney Award for their exposé, the paper reported Wednesday.
The Sidney Hillman Foundation, the organization which presents the award, honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Judges include Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Alix Freedman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Harold Meyerson and Lindsay Beyerstein.
The Sidney Award is given monthly to an outstanding piece of journalism during the prior month.
The Times investigation, titled “Poison,” uncovered a broken regulatory structure that often leaves workers covered in lead dust, some ushered from the plant by ambulance after becoming overcome by fumes.
The report includes a shocking video of the smelting process, which creates giant clouds of powder that looks like smoke from an explosion consuming entire factory floors.
The company promotes itself as a “green manufacturer because they recycle lead from car batteries, but working conditions for employees underscore any positive effects. The report documents hundreds of Gopher workers who were exposed to concentrations of lead hundreds of times above federal limits, limits the report notes are already far too lenient and haven’t been updated since the 1970s.
No amount of lead is considered safe, many studies have found.
As a result of overexposure, many workers likely died, according to a group of experts consulted by the Times. Over the past five years, 14 current and former Gopher employees have suffered heart attacks or strokes, all before the age of 60. At least 16 children of plant workers also showed elevated lead levels, which were probably related to the plant.
The report also found that 80% of the Gopher workforce had enough lead in their blood to put them at increased risk of life-threatening conditions such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, and kidney failure.
The plant physician knew workers’ blood lead levels were so high they shouldn’t even have been allowed to go to work, but he never warned them, reporters found.
It doesn’t stop there. The report goes on to describe how the company knew about excess lead levels, yet still dismantled safety equipment. And instead of prioritizing the health of its workers, Gopher incentivized employees to report lower blood lead levels, which reportedly prompted workers to seek various methods to hack blood results, including chelation therapy, a chemical process in which a synthetic solution is injected into the bloodstream to remove heavy metals and minerals from the body. The treatment is known to cause burning at the IV site, fever, headache, nausea or vomiting.
“The reporting team went all out for this investigation, from knocking on workers’ doors to training to become certified lead inspectors,” said Sidney judge Beyerstein. “They exposed shocking neglect by Gopher and deficient oversight by OSHA.”
The project was the result of an extensive investigation, including the blood analysis of lead levels in 500 workers and interviews with more than 80 current and former employees. The paper invested more than $500,000 in the project over a two-year period. Frontline’s Local Journalism Initiative helped fund a significant portion of the reporting costs, according to the Times.