Five years had passed since federal inspectors set foot inside the one company in Florida that produces tons and tons of lead.
The signal was unmistakable. Government regulators had checked out.
In the absence of any oversight, Tampa Bay Times reporters Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray examined Gopher Resource, a battery recycler in East Tampa, where hundreds of employees toiled amid blinding clouds of lead dust and other toxic chemicals.
Over the better part of two years, Corey, Rebecca and Eli amassed incredible evidence of harm. And on Monday, the team won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for their series, “Poisoned.”
All three reporters are remarkable individuals, possessing their own distinct superpowers. Rebecca is a purposeful reporter and a vivid, lyrical writer. Eli is a deep analytical thinker. Corey has an uncanny ability to earn the trust of sources. Each of them are relentless, dogged, meticulous and fair. Together, with their common strengths and unique skills, they formed an extraordinary bond.
They first identified Gopher as a major pollution source by scouring county documents. They interviewed more than 100 workers and 65 expert sources, spending thousands of hours doing so. 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 their own database from these records that showed the devastating scope of worker contamination. They got hundreds of videos and photographs from Gopher workers revealing the conditions inside the plant. To hone their expertise, all three reporters went to Georgia for weeklong training to become certified lead inspectors.
No one illustrated the consequences at the Tampa plant more than Prospere Dumeus, who worked there 32 years. Dumeus’ heart problems began in his 30s. By his early 50s, he had the lung capacity of a 100-year-old man. At 56, he was dead. Using more than three decades of blood-lead tests, the Times performed a groundbreaking analysis and calculated the amount of lead in his bones. It was off the charts. Gopher’s doctor, however, had cleared him for duty without any reservations. Scores of other workers suffered severe health ramifications after working at the factory. The team would later demonstrate how the factory also had tainted the neighborhood.
This exhaustive investigation underscores the vital importance of an independent, locally-owned news organization like the Tampa Bay Times.
Gopher made some safety improvements after Corey, Rebecca and Eli began asking specific questions. And once the initial parts of “Poisoned” were published, government regulators finally reappeared. They confirmed the Times’ findings, demanded fixes and issued more than $800,000 in fines. (Notably, it cost about this much to produce our investigation.)
“It should not take a newspaper expose for our workers to be safe,” Congresswoman Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, had said after federal regulators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued their fine last fall.
In this case, however, that is exactly what it took.
On Monday, journalists from the Times gathered in our Tampa newsroom to watch the livestream of the Pulitzer announcements. This is the second consecutive year the Times has won a Pulitzer — our 14th in history — for a local investigation. Last year, we gathered at a private home with a few people to watch the announcement. That was a lovely moment. But it felt good to be back in a newsroom for this. The story of “Poisoned” is rooted in Tampa and Hillsborough County so it felt fitting to be in our Tampa newsroom for the big news. There were tears, hugs and high fives. Later, we toasted the winners in the courtyard of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the Times.
So many people made crucial contributions, including photographers Martha Asencio-Rhine and Luis Santana; video journalists Jennifer Glenfield and James Borchuck; editors Kathleen McGrory and Adam Playford; digital producer Martin Frobisher; designers Sean Kristoff-Jones and Paul Alexander and our engagement team of Joshua Gillin and Ashley Dye. Many more helped along the way.
We completed “Poisoned” with partial funding from PBS FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative. The storied Boston-based newsroom also consulted on drafts and strategy.
This project has led to changes that will improve the health of factory workers and the surrounding neighborhood. And for that, we are enormously proud.
Finally, we want to thank our readers, donors and advertisers. When you support the Tampa Bay Times, you enable us to do this important local journalism for the betterment of our community.
It is why we are here.