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Tampa Bay Times wins prestigious Polk award for Poisoned series

The initial series took 18 months to report and sparked change at Florida’s only lead smelter.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Eli Murray, left, and Corey G. Johnson collected soil samples near the Gopher Resource factory in Tampa as part of their investigation. The two teamed with Rebecca Woolington on the reporting project, which on Monday was recognized with a George Polk Award. The reporters all became certified lead inspectors during the course of the project. Some of the soil samples they collected had elevated levels of lead.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Eli Murray, left, and Corey G. Johnson collected soil samples near the Gopher Resource factory in Tampa as part of their investigation. The two teamed with Rebecca Woolington on the reporting project, which on Monday was recognized with a George Polk Award. The reporters all became certified lead inspectors during the course of the project. Some of the soil samples they collected had elevated levels of lead. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]
Published Feb. 21|Updated Feb. 21

A Tampa Bay Times reporting team has won a George Polk Award for a series that exposed dangerous conditions at a local lead smelter.

Reporters Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray were honored in the local reporting category for their series, “Poisoned.”

The awards, established in 1949, commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war.

Fifteen awards were announced Monday from a record 610 submissions. Recipients this year included teams from The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and a collaboration between the Miami Herald and ProPublica.

Johnson, Woolington and Murray took readers inside Gopher Resource, where hundreds of workers, many of whom were Black and immigrants, toiled amid blinding clouds of lead dust and other toxic chemicals.

The reporting showed that Gopher had an inferior 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 disappeared. It hadn’t sent inspectors to the only lead factory in Florida in five years, the Times found.

Tampa Bay Times reporters Corey G. Johnson, left, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray are winners of the 2021 George Polk Award in the local reporting category.
Tampa Bay Times reporters Corey G. Johnson, left, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray are winners of the 2021 George Polk Award in the local reporting category. [ BOYZELL HOSEY, DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The reporters spent thousands of hours interviewing 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 initial reporting took 18 months.

Later stories showed how the factory had polluted the surrounding neighborhood. Reporters also detailed how Gopher had taken steps to attempt to limit its emissions in the community on days it knew county air monitoring devices were operating.

“In the absence of any real regulatory oversight, our reporters filled the void,” said Times editor and vice president Mark Katches. “They did the job that inspectors had failed to do.”

The project was completed with support from PBS FRONTLINE as part of its Local Journalism Initiative. The storied nonprofit newsroom consulted on story drafts and engagement plans and provided partial funding for the project.

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

The investigative work led to swift and decisive action. Before the first stories appeared, the company began making repairs in response to specific questions from Times reporters.

Then, days after the initial stories posted online, OSHA sent inspectors to the factory for the first time in years. County investigators followed suit. Federal and county inspectors spent months confirming the Times’ findings, demanding fixes and issuing a combined $837,000 in fines.

In the aftermath of the series, there were more results. A bond rating firm downgraded Gopher’s credit. Local health officials screened neighborhood children for lead. 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.

“This series ultimately made working conditions safer and probably living conditions safer in the surrounding community,” Katches said. “That’s the definition of public service.”

This is the third time the Times has won a Polk award, considered one of the most prestigious national awards in journalism. Times reporters Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi won in 2019 for their project on tragic outcomes at the heart surgery center at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Cara Fitzpatrick, Lisa Gartner and Michael LaForgia won in 2015 for tracing a decline in Black student success to a 2007 school board decision that effectively resegregated schools.

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