TAMPA BAY, FL — Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray of the Tampa Bay Times win the April Sidney Award for their exposé of rampant lead poisoning and major regulatory failures at Florida’s only lead smelter, Gopher Resource. The company promotes its role in “green manufacturing” because they recycle the lead in car batteries. But there’s nothing green about a plant so heavily covered in lead dust that workers emerge looking like they’ve been rolled in powdered sugar. Ambulances regularly collect workers who have been overcome by fumes.
Hundreds of Gopher workers were exposed to concentrations of lead hundreds of times above federal limits, which are far too lenient and haven’t been updated since the 1970s. No amount of lead is considered safe. Many workers likely died from their exposures, 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.
An astonishing 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.
Gopher knew about the excess lead levels, but they dismantled safety equipment. The company pushed the responsibility for low blood levels onto workers, offering bonuses for normal levels. This spurred workers to engage in all kinds of dubious methods to bring their lead levels down including secretly getting chelation therapy.
Federal OSHA inspectors hadn’t inspected the plant since 2014 and they overlooked critical shortcomings in earlier inspections. In a Backstory interview, Corey Johnson said that, after the stories ran, OSHA was back at the plant for the first time in years.
“The reporting team went all out for this investigation, from knocking on workers’ doors to training to become certified lead inspectors,” said Sidney judge Lindsay 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.
The Sidney Hillman Foundation honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Judges are 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.