Tampa Bay Times wins prominent national award for Poisoned investigation

A second Times project, “Arrests and Evictions” was also recognized by the News Leaders Association.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Eli Murray and Corey Johnson take soil samples near the Gopher Resource factory in Tampa on Jan. 27, 2021.  Samples were sent to a lab and tested for lead.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Eli Murray and Corey Johnson take soil samples near the Gopher Resource factory in Tampa on Jan. 27, 2021. Samples were sent to a lab and tested for lead. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published April 13, 2022|Updated April 13, 2022

A Tampa Bay Times reporting team has won a prominent national award from the News Leaders Association for a series that exposed dangerous conditions at a Tampa lead smelter and the surrounding community.

Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray won the Frank A. Blethen Award for Local Accountability Reporting for their investigation, “Poisoned.”

Another Times project, “Arrests and Evictions,” was also recognized by the association as a finalist for the Dori J. Maynard Justice Award.

The reporting team of Christopher O’Donnell, Ian Hodgson and Nathaniel Lash exposed how an eviction program run by the Tampa Police Department urged landlords to evict hundreds of tenants after arrests, and 90 percent of the tenants flagged were Black.

“Both of these remarkable investigations uncovered glaring problems in our community, prompting action and reform,” said Mark Katches, the Times’ editor and vice president.

The local accountability award is one of four national prizes to recognize the Times’ “Poisoned” series over the past week. The project was completed with support from PBS Frontline’s Local Journalism Initiative, which provided partial funding and consultation.

Last week, “Poisoned” won a rare medal from the Investigative Reporters & Editors organization. The contest, judged by peers in the investigative reporting community, recognizes winners and finalists in more than 15 categories in print, broadcast, audio and student categories. The IRE medal is the highest honor bestowed by the organization. The Times last won an IRE medal in 2015 for its “Failure Factories” series.

On Friday, the team was honored in New York at a ceremony recognizing the winners of the George Polk Awards. The reporters were present to receive the award, which was announced in February. Earlier that week, the project was honored as a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting during a ceremony at Harvard University.

Hannah Dreier and Andrew Ba Tran, of The Washington Post, won the Goldsmith Prize for their project, “FEMA’s Disasters.”

Related: Read the complete Tampa Bay Times series "Poisoned"

In the “Poisoned” series, Johnson, Woolington and Murray took readers inside Gopher Resource, the only lead smelter in Florida. They showed how hundreds of workers, many of whom were Black and immigrants, spent 12-hour shifts amid blinding clouds of lead dust and other toxic chemicals.

The initial reporting, which took 18 months, revealed that Gopher had a troubled ventilation system and issued weak respirators that couldn’t protect workers from relentless fumes. A company doctor repeatedly failed to warn employees about dangers as their health plummeted, and workers unknowingly carried the neurotoxin home, contaminating their kids. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that was supposed to safeguard workers, had botched inspections, then stopped inspecting the factory.

Later stories showed how the company and regulators mishandled the carcinogen cadmium and how the factory had polluted the surrounding neighborhood. Reporters also detailed the way Gopher took steps to limit its emissions in the community on days it knew county air monitoring devices were operating.

Ultimately, the reporters interviewed more than 100 workers and 65 expert sources. They reviewed more than 100,000 pages of documents, including tens of thousands of personal medical records and confidential company emails, engineering studies and consultant reports that regulators had never seen. They obtained internal testing results and built databases showing the devastating scope of worker contamination.

The investigation prompted swift and far-reaching change, including government inspections, significant fines, a credit downgrade and additional regulatory oversight of the factory.