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Inside the making of a Pulitzer Prize-winning story

Mark Parker

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Tampa Bay Times reporters Corey G. Johnson (right), Rebecca Woolington (center) and Eli Murray (left) celebrate winning the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Their series, "Poisoned," exposed dangers from Florida's only lead smelting plant. Photo by Ivy Ceballo, Tampa Bay Times, used with permission.

As a journalist, Corey G. Johnson realizes that while a story may have an immense impact locally, it is impossible to tell if the content will resonate with readers in places like New York or Nebraska.

Johnson’s series exposing the buildup of toxic dust, mishandling of hazardous waste and the subsequent coverup at a Tampa Bay lead smelting plant resonated across the country.

He led a team, including Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray, that recently received the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Their “Poisoned” series, published by the Tampa Bay Times in March 2021, uncovered an extensive history of employment and community endangerment committed by Gopher Resource, Florida’s only lead smelting plant. The company removes lead from old car batteries, melts it down and repurposes the toxic metal, with an apparent disregard for the harmful effects of the process.

“The journalism community saw poise, and they really appreciated what we attempted to do and the impact that we were blessed to get for the work,” Johnson told the Catalyst. “So, that’s super gratifying.

“People say all the time – and it’s true – we certainly don’t do this kind of work for the prizes.”

As a former journalism contest judge, Johnson knows the competitions are “a crapshoot.” He said the results depend on the judges’ personal tastes and called trying to decide between two exceptional projects “a fool’s errand.”

However, he said “Poisoned” was nearly universally recognized and appreciated leading up to the Pulitzer Awards.

“Which is super rare,” added Johnson. “That rarely happens. So, that’s gratifying on a whole other level because we are a local news operation – as you well know, we are not the New York Times or the Washington Post or ProPublica.”

Johnson said that what Tampa’s Gopher Resource plant allowed to happen to its workers and the surrounding community was clearly important to the Tampa Bay region, but seeing his work reverberate nationally was surprising and humbling. Over two weeks after receiving journalism’s top prize, the 14th for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times), the investigative reporter said that he and his team were still processing their win.

“Poisoned” winning a Pulitzer also says something about the new era of journalism, Johnson said. In previous times, locals would have shared the expose through word-of-mouth and passed around copies of that day’s paper. As the series was published, he said interested people shared the stories online, and many went viral nationally.

“That too was a gratifying thing,” explained Johnson. “Because what it ultimately meant was that what happened to those workers wasn’t going to be easily swept under the rug.

“If the local people, for whatever reason, weren’t going to act on it, there will be pressure coming from the outside.”

The outside pressure came.

Gopher Resource primarily employs minority and immigrant workers or those looking for a second chance in life. The plant exposed employees to lead levels high enough to endanger their and their families health.

Many workers developed serious, or even life-threatening, ailments while inadvertently introducing the lead dust into their homes. At least 16 of the employees’ children tested positive for exposure.

The investigation also found Gopher Resource was polluting the surrounding area – while federal safety officials turned a blind eye to the plant for five years. Following the public outcry in the wake of the series, federal and county regulators confirmed the finding and issued over $800,000 in fines.

“There was lawmaker pressure … that kind of forced OSHA to go into their plant and start dealing with that issue,” said Johnson. “And that’s another piece of deep gratification.”

To the reporters’ delight, regulators forced changes to the ventilation systems and housekeeping process and addressed other critical issues to make the plant safer. Johnson said the outcome went beyond what he and his team had hoped.

“All that long-winded way to say it’s pretty cool,” said the affable Johnson. “We’re kind of over the moon about it.”

Johnson said he stumbled on the idea for the series while he and Murray were reporting on lead in the water at Hillsborough County schools and how the district looked the other way, leaving parents in the dark.

A confidential source from the Health Department slid him a report that included two pages on lead poisoning during that process. What stuck out, said Johnson, showed Hillsborough County leading the state in lead poisoning cases and pointed to a local battery recycling plant as the primary cause, without naming the facility.

Staff picture of Corey Johnson taken at the Tampa Bay Times studio. Photo by Boyzell Hosey, used with permission.

He then realized the county’s largest battery recycler was also a lead smelter – the only one left in Florida. “I had no idea about it,” said Johnson.

While researching the plant, Johnson found an EPA report that identified locations uncompliant with federal laws on air pollution.

“And lo and behold, Hillsborough County was the only place in Florida violating the Clean Air Act,” said Johnson. “And specifically, violating the Clean Air Act for lead pollution.”

The report identified Gopher Resource and a 1.7-mile radius around the plant as the lead pollution hotspot in Florida.

“It’s polluting at such a rate that it’s causing the whole county to violate the lead air pollution,” he said. “So, now I’m going, ‘O.K., we got to find out what’s going on.”

Johnson and the team spent 18 months on the series, with the onset of the pandemic complicating reporting efforts. He called the first year without established treatment or vaccines – “chaos.”

The plant’s workforce is a tight-knit community, said Johnson, and the only way to elicit responses was to show up in person and persuade people to talk. A difficult and dangerous task with Covid running rampant.

If navigating a global pandemic was not enough, there was also the fear of management.

The plant, said Johnson, utilizes an expensive and sophisticated surveillance system, and cameras inside the facility were as prevalent as the toxic dust.

People monitor the video feeds around the clock, and Johnson said some workers reported anything seen or heard to management. He added that the plant contracted lawyers and private investigators to surveil employees.

“One of our sources on the story got followed by a private investigator, and it freaked them out,” said Johnson. “They ended up calling the police, and the police confirmed they were a private investigator working with G4S – which is a major firm.”

Johnson said for many workers, the plant represented a second chance in life. Several had spent time in jail or prison and felt their options were limited due to a criminal record, lack of education or immigration status.

“So, a lot of them didn’t want to risk doing anything that could injure their situation,” said Johnson. “And come back to bite their family in the ass.”

He could not say if Gopher Resource actively sought out those employees due to the reduced chance they would contact authorities, but he did call the conditions brutal. He added that the physically and emotionally taxing environment is not something someone with options would choose.

However, Johnson incredulously stressed that many employees, even those that left, enjoyed the job and the camaraderie and money it provided.

“There were many workers who had heart attacks or had burns or something that disabled them and sent them to the hospital,” said Johnson. “They might not enjoy going to the hospital – they got sick – but as soon as they got healthy enough, they would be right back in that plant.”

Johnson is now leaving the Times on the highest of notes and starting a new chapter with ProPublica. He called it his dream job and said the publication is the preeminent investigative journalism organization in the county.

He said several of his idols and friends work there, and with the organization’s resources, there is also a pay increase. Johnson said he has thoroughly enjoyed his time with the local paper, considers his colleagues as family and will keep a keen eye on Florida in his reporting.

“But sometimes you hit the lottery, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities come your way,” said Johnson. “And when they do, you’re compelled to take them.

“I’ll certainly take this kind of conclusion, man.”

 

 

 

 

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    KAREN J. DOUGLAS

    May 21, 2022at3:51 pm

    Very glad to hear Mr Johnson is moving up into a coveted position with ProPublica. Don’t even know what that is yet, but I bet I’m subscribed to it before end of day. My best to all of you for your excellent hard work.

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