After eighteen months of long hours, connecting dots and piecing together reams of information, UO School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) alum Rebecca Woolington and her colleagues at the Tampa Bay Times published “Poisoned,” an exposé that won the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting.
Woolington is the 15th SOJC Duck to receive a Pulitzer. The series chronicled the toxic practices of a Florida lead smelter that has been extracting lead from used car batteries and recycling it into blocks of metal.
“Winning the Pulitzer is an incredible honor,” Woolington said. “I will say it hasn’t completely sunk in. I don’t know that it ever will. It was so humbling and amazing to see our work recognized at that level. We’re most proud of the impact our story has had in the community and for the workers, but it is really cool to see the journalism committee recognize our work as well.”
But it might never have happened for Woolington, a 2009 graduate of the School of Journalism and Communication’s advertising program who considered going to law school before an investigative journalism course changed her mind.
“I took an investigative reporting class in Portland, and it was amazing,” she said. “That class and working at the Daily Emerald really solidified that journalism was what I wanted to do.”
After graduating, Woolington served as an investigative and criminal justice reporter at The Oregonian before joining the Tampa Bay Times in 2018. There, she worked alongside Corey G. Johnson and Eli Murray to look into reports of lead in the drinking water in schools in Tampa. A source in the health department revealed the county had the highest rate of lead poisonings in the state. The reporters’ investigation led directly to Gopher Resource, Florida’s only battery recycling plant.
“We pulled all the public records,” Woolington said. “We requested OSHA inspections. We went through worker’s compensation cases, and that’s how we actually found workers’ names. And then we went and knocked on their door and asked them about what was going on at the plant. One source led to another to another to another, and that’s how it got started.”
After poring over medical records, analyzing blood levels of workers and conducting more than 80 interviews with current and former employees, the team discovered that for more than a decade the plant had exposed its workers to levels of lead in the air that were hundreds of times higher than the federal limit.
“We found that a number of workers showed signs of kidney damage,” Woolington said. “Some of them had suffered heart attacks and strokes. We counted 14 in the story, and we found more later on. One employee who had worked at the plant for 32 years developed kidney and heart disease and died at age 56.”
Although federal rules required Gopher to provide workers with regular medical checkups, the company-contracted doctor failed to inform workers that the level of lead in their blood put them in danger, and subsequently cleared them to work, the stories said.
Another finding was that inadequate ventilation at the facility poisoned workers and residents of the community who lived nearby. Toxic dust from the plant also found its way home with workers, exposing at least 16 children of employees to lead poisoning.
But because of the investigative work by the Tampa Bay Times team, Gopher Resource has been forced to implement safety measures to protect workers and nearby residents as well as provide new medical care for employees.
Since “Poisoned” came out in 2021, Woolington, who has since taken on a new role at the publication as investigative editor, has held a firm belief in the value of local news reporting.
“The reporters who cover city hall meetings, people writing about criminal justice, covering the police, covering protests, covering the day-in and day-out events in the community and letting people know what’s happening where they live — all of that is vital to democracy,” she said. “It’s a challenging career. It’s painful and wonderful because it’s so challenging, but holding people accountable is something that we have to do.”
—By Sharleen Nelson, University Communications