Inside Florida’s lone lead smelter, hundreds of workers have been exposed to alarming levels of poisons.
We know this because of an extraordinary reporting team at the Tampa Bay Times.
Investigative journalists Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray took 18 months to bring you the story from inside Gopher Resource in Tampa.
Factory workers break down 50,000 used car batteries a day. They extract the lead, melt it in furnaces and reforge it into new blocks.
Employees have had so much of the neurotoxin in their blood that it can severely damage their health, and the company gave workers respirators that didn’t protect them when poison levels spiked.
The reporters detailed tragic circumstances, including what happened to Prospere Dumeus, a Haitian immigrant who spent 32 years at the plant. By his mid-50s, his heart had long begun to fail him. He had an enormous reservoir of lead in his bones.
They introduced you to Eric Telemaque. His health had worsened while working at the factory. He ended his last shift on the locker room floor, felled by a stroke just days before his 50th birthday. He has suffered more strokes and can no longer live on his own.
Reporters also found that factory workers unwittingly carried poisonous dust home to their children. One baby girl had more of the neurotoxin inside her tiny body than some of the company’s furnace workers.
The Times team reviewed thousands of pages of documents and obtained internal testing data. They interviewed more than 80 current and former workers who described the operation in detail. Many sent photos and videos.
With the help of our partners at FRONTLINE, we will mail both installments to about 2,000 homes near the factory to make sure the community has access to this vital work.
Distinctive stories like Poisoned expose problems that only local journalists can reveal. These stories are important and expensive.
Our lead poisoning investigations — including the newsroom’s earlier reporting on Hillsborough schools — have cost more than $500,000 when you include the contributions from other journalists at the Times.
We can’t do this without support from readers, and we invite our community to help the Times to keep producing such remarkable stories.
In October 2019, we launched the Tampa Bay Times Investigative Fund. A year ago, we added the Tampa Bay Times Journalism Fund. These two funds have raised a total of $300,000 from more than 3,700 contributors. All the money goes to support our journalism.
This year, we are establishing a goal to raise $1 million to sustain our investigative reporting. It would pay the salaries, benefits and reporting expenses for a team of five people for two full years.
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Your contributions would fund the work of investigative reporters like:
- Corey G. Johnson, who has an uncanny ability to persuade people to tell him things. In my 35 years as a journalist, I’ve never met anyone better at it. At the Center for Investigative Reporting, Corey exposed how female inmates in California were illegally sterilized by prison doctors. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for revealing widespread earthquake safety problems inside California’s schools. He landed at the Times in 2017 and almost immediately launched into reporting about the dangers of lead.
- Rebecca Woolington, a dogged journalist who writes beautifully. As a young journalist in Oregon, she dreamed of becoming a top-shelf features writer. As her editor at the time, I sat down with her for coffee along the banks of the Willamette River and encouraged her to go all-in as an investigative reporter. There are many exceptional investigative journalists in America, but very few write like she can. She joined the Times in 2018.
- Eli Murray, a brilliant data journalist. He has been principally responsible for analyzing blood tests, respirator safety levels and air samples for our Poisoned project. Not only does Eli make sense of the data, he’s helped display it for readers. The Times hired him straight out of the University of Illinois six years ago. Last year, with reporter Tracey McManus, Eli won a Gerald Loeb award for his work showing how the Church of Scientology had quietly gobbled up huge swaths of downtown Clearwater.
For Corey, Rebecca and Eli, the Poisoned series began to come together when they started knocking on the doors of factory workers.
In Pasco County, they arrived at the home of Ko Brown, saying they were investigating cases of lead poisoning.
Standing at the front door, Brown’s wife burst into tears. Finally, someone wanted to hear their story.