Pulitzer Winner Corey G. Johnson on Tampa’s Lead Problem (re-release)


COREY JOHNSON: When you go into the plant, there’s all this brown dust everywhere and it looks like dirt. And the worker explained that it wasn’t dirt. It was lead.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH, HOST: That’s Tampa Bay Times reporter Corey Johnson.

PULITZER ANNOUNCER: And the prize goes to Corey G Johnson…

RANEY ARONSON-RATH: Last week, Johnson and his colleagues Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray were awarded a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting for their series Poisoned. Their reporting was supported in part by FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative.

COREY JOHNSON: The counties in Tampa Bay had the highest rates of adult lead poisoning. And so that started the odyssey.

RANEY ARONSON-RATH: The series investigates Gopher Resource, a smelting plant in Tampa, where hundreds of workers were exposed for years to dangerously high levels of lead. The reporters spent years poring through thousands of pages of documents, regulatory reports and employee medical records. Today, we’re re-releasing a conversation I had with Corey Johnson in March 2021 all about this important investigation. I'm Raney Aronson Rath, the Executive Producer of FRONTLINE, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.

ARONSON-RATH: Corey. It's great to be connected again about this really important story that you and your team have been working on for so long.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you. Thank you for having us and thank you for all the support you've given to us over the last year and a half, two years now. It's been great.

ARONSON-RATH: Oh, absolutely. I mean, it's been our pleasure. I know that this has been, you know, more than 18 months in the making. And I just want to go back to a meeting that you and I had with Eli and Rebecca, sitting in Tampa, you guys were pouring over documents with me, but you also showed me this incredible video, that you had been given by a worker from this plant. And I hope we could just talk about that right away. Like what kind of images were you starting to see in documents that led you to think that this was a really big story.

JOHNSON: We started to get a video of this one guy who worked in the furnace had this incredible video of how dusty the area was. And so one of the first things that we learned that was striking was that when you go into this plant, there's all this brown dust everywhere.

And it looks like dirt. And the worker explained that it wasn't dirt, it was lead. And he had this video to show how bad the ventilation problems that the workers were dealing with. They have these really sophisticated vents that are supposed to suck this brown lead dust out of the workspace, but it wasn't working.

And what we were finding in our reporting is that it hadn't worked properly for years. And so the video shows in this one area of the plant, there was so much lead dust that had accumulated on various parts of the room that one worker threw a pebble at the dust, and then all of it just cascaded down, almost looking like a lead avalanche and when we saw that we immediately were blown away, but we also knew that we were on the cusp of something really, really big, something really, really important.

ARONSON-RATH: Yeah, I can just remember us huddled over this table together and looking at that video with you and just stunned at the worker conditions there. Tell me about this plant and where it's located and then of course, what kind of work happens inside that plant?

JOHNSON: So this plant is the last lead smelter in Florida. It takes your everyday car battery, so when you drive your car and your battery runs out, most people end up having to take that back to where they bought it so it can be recycled. Those companies then sell those batteries to companies like Gopher Resource here in Tampa, who then take the batteries, crush them and extract the lead out of it. The lead never goes away. It's still present in the battery. And so they repurpose this lead. They burn it, they put it in fiery furnaces and they put it in refinery kettles to create new products. So the, your battery, your crushed battery goes to Gopher Resource and it ends up becoming lead that the military could use or gun manufacturers could use, or, uh, other battery manufacturers can use. And once upon a time in America, these businesses were everywhere. There were hundreds.

ARCHIVE: The industry consuming the largest tonnage of American lead is the automotive industry. Almost every car uses lead in storage batteries, saw there and bearing metals, and even brake lining. In addition, lead is used in gasoline for better performance. Lead storage batteries are also widely used in airplanes…

JOHNSON: Over time as regulation and science began to kick in and people began to understand more about pollution and the dangers and the harms. A lot of these businesses faded away. Well in Tampa, in our own backyard, the last one standing is here. We took a like a roundabout way to even learn of the plant. Uh, the interest was personal for me because, um, I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. But some of my earliest childhood memories in the ’80s was going to visit my grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles in Flint, Michigan. Fast forward, 30 years later. And I like everyone else are looking at the images out of Flint.

NEWSREEL: It's not safe to drink the water in Flint, Michigan, a city of nearly 100,000 north of Detroit… After the city began drawing from the highly corrosive Flint river, brown water started flowing from taps…. The water was improperly treated and lead leaked from city pipes right into people's homes, exposing thousands of people to the toxic metal… Thousands of people have been told to not drink the water, to not even touch the water coming from their taps after test showed elevated levels…

JOHNSON: And the images of that brown water coming out the faucet and people talking about lead and what it does to people. And I was curious, ’cause I had never known its dangers or what it could do in the body. And so when I moved to Tampa, one of the things that was on my mind was, ‘I wonder what lead could be doing here in Tampa.’ And I was given a report from the health department, one of those obscure, but important reports that most people just kind of ignore. And there was a section on lead poisoning and the section identified that the counties in Tampa Bay had the highest rates of adult lead poisoning, and the report also identified battery recyclers as one of the main causes. And so that started the odyssey, that started the journey of wanting to find out what is the cause of so many people having lead poisoning. And what does that actually look like in a human being's life?

ARONSON-RATH: I mean, so I'm curious, were the adults who were, you know, carrying these high levels of lead, were they aware of it in Tampa? Is this something that there's an awareness about or were you just discovering it yourself?

JOHNSON: Well, the sense I got as I started to talk to people in the community was that there wasn't really much sense of lead and what it was doing. That being said, the report ultimately caused us to do more research and that's how we discovered Gopher Resource as a plant. Myself, Rebecca and Eli kind of came together, looking at records and anything that was public that we can get our hands on. And over time, we begin to see these reports from workers, talking about injuries, talking about burns, lead burns, talking about how hot it was, talking about dust.

And it was through that process of beginning to reach out to those workers is when we began to hear more and more that the workers were getting regularly tested for lead. Uh, some of their lead levels were incredibly high and many of them were beginning to have some real dramatic health effects, heart attacks, strokes, kidney damage. That kind of floored us.

ARONSON-RATH: Are they sharing this with you transparently? I'm just curious, like how transparent are these employees being at this point?

JOHNSON: Some of the current workers were very, very fearful of, uh, saying, saying anything that could cause them to lose their job. You know, a lot of the workforce at this plant is Black, African-American, uh, they're immigrants. Some people, you know, have been imprisoned. And so a lot of these workers came to feel like this, this money that they were making at this plant was the best money that they had ever seen. And they were able to feed their families and do things that they wouldn't otherwise. And so that's been an ongoing concern about retaliation, concern about being surveilled on.

And so we gave the workers all the space and confidence and publicly, if they chose, to share their experiences. And they did some incredibly important things. They obtained records, their own personal medical records, as well as the records that federal law requires companies like this to frequently test the air in the plant, uh, to make sure that the poisons are within safe levels. And what we, what we began to see was as the workers were getting these records and sharing with us, that the levels at the Tampa plant was sometimes hundreds of times higher than what the federal limit was.

ARONSON-RATH: We’ll be right back.

ARONSON-RATH: Corey, there was one person in your story that just struck me as an extraordinary story. Tell me about Prospere Dumeus.

JOHNSON: So Prospere Dumeus was an immigrant who, from Haiti, who came in the early ‘80s on the boat to America looking for a better life. Um, he didn't have much education. 1985 he came to this plant and became somewhat of a go-to expert, particularly in the furnace area. But over time he, his exposure and his exposure levels to lead was so high. And we were able to get records going all the way back to the ‘80s, and we did this analysis that, we talked with some experts in lead who calculate the cumulative exposure that a person can have to lead versus just a one single test.

And what we found there was shocking. What we found was that this poison had built and built and built in his body to such high levels. As early as the ‘90s, as early as early 2000s, which coincidentally was when he started to first have some of his heart problems. Over the course of his life this man had either two or three major heart surgeries. But yet, he just continued to work, continued to work. Finally, in 2017, when he has one of his last surgeries, the doctor tells him and the plant that this man can't, he can't lift anything heavier than 30 pounds. At that point, the company decides to fire him. And within a few months he ends up having this massive heart attack at church. And two years later, he dies. The final causes of death is heart disease, kidney disease and a brain injury. Um, he had all the signs of what you would see for someone who was around lead.

ARONSON-RATH: Hmm. Wow… So, of course I know you went to Gopher multiple times for an interview. I know that they didn't, they didn't actually sit down with you, but they did issue a statement. What did they say about all this?

JOHNSON: Well, what was striking there was that, uh, they sidestepped all of the detailed questions that we asked and basically said that they care about their workers, that safety is very important to them and that they've invested hundreds or over 140 or so million dollars on safety improvements and that they have done a fantastic job at bringing lead levels down in their workforce.

And so that was their response. They didn't refute this story directly, nor did they answer any of the detailed questions.

ARONSON-RATH: So I want to talk just going forward, what are you hoping to do as the series goes on from here?

JOHNSON: Well, we feel like we're still very much just scratching the surface about what, how workers may have been overexposed and what that ultimately meant. So there's a lot still to do a lot of questions still to answer around, you know, who all got affected, who knew what and when and why.

So there's still a lot to do. And I think in the days ahead, we'll learn more about all of those matters.

ARONSON-RATH: Well, there'll be on this one and we'll keep following it. So, um, and look forward to future reporting. Thanks again.

JOHNSON: Well, thank you so much Raney and thank you FRONTLINE for all the support you've given us and the interest and the love, we really appreciate it.

ARONSON-RATH: Corey Johnson is a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times, he and his team have been collaborating with FRONTLINE on their new investigative series POISONED. You can read part one now at TAMPA BAY DOT COM and FRONTLINE DOT ORG.

Our podcast producers are Max Green and James Edwards.

Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. Production help from Cassie McGrath.

Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer.

Sarah Childress is our series senior editor.

Our special projects editor is Phil Bennett.

Andrew Metz is our managing editor.

I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE.

Original music in this episode by Stellwagen Symphonette.

The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at GBH and powered by PRX.

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