Alison Young and Peter Eisler, lead reporters for USA Today’s “Ghost Factories” series, used shoe-leather reporting to reveal soil contamination caused by more than 230 shuttered smelter factories across the United States. Their 14-month investigation led to many changes across the country – and a silver award in this year’s Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism.
The story generated from Alison’s long history with smelter sites. She wrote about them while at the Dallas Times Herald, Detroit Free Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, but felt the story would work as a national piece. When she joined USA Today in 2009, she had her chance.
“What might seem like old news can be made new and fresh when you take different approaches,” Alison says. “I’m a reporter who can’t let a bone drop.”
A key element in the story was environmental scientist William Eckel’s research on old lead factories, which they used as a tip sheet, Peter says. Eckel had warned of soil contamination and shared his information with EPA officials.
Alison says the paper wanted to determine if EPA and state environmental regulators failed to alert residents about contamination. They also wanted to know if Eckel’s research findings were correct.
“It’s much more work to prove a negative that they didn’t do something, especially with the passage of time and fading of memories,” she says. “Ten years have passed so you can’t just call and say, ‘What did you guys do?’ No one remembered this report.”
Lacking people to call, they filed open records requests to get old memos from state and federal agencies, Alison says.
To determine if there was any lead contamination in the ground, they started their soil testing. There’s no comprehensive list of companies, so they used Sandborn fire insurance maps that show how properties were used, city atlases, historical aerial photos and archival photos, Alison says.
Then came the fun part. Packed with X-ray devices, lead contamination literature for families, release forms for testing and health records, protective radiation gear and all the other stuff reporters normally carry, Alison and Peter headed off separately to test soil. For eight weeks, they did 1,000 soil samples across the country.
They needed training and certification for the X-ray machines, and they needed local clearances to use them. Peter says the devices look like police radar guns: “When you hold it on the side of the road, people start to slow down.”
But testing wasn’t as simple as grabbing some dirt and running the device over it, they say. They worked in the heat and rain, dodged bees and dogs and watched their backs while in risky neighborhoods. And when that part was over, they had to set up lighting, microphones and cameras to interview the families.
“At that phase, you start talking to real people and coming face to face with people who the project will help,” Peter says. “It helps sustain you because you realize what the impact of the story will be.”
Before they started writing the stories, the reporters and editors decided to write the story for the iPad platform, Alison says. Project editor John Hillkirk pushed to publish the series online with interactive maps, videos and public record documents, she says. (The series won an Associated Press Media Editors association award this year for Digital Storytelling and Reporting.)
“At a time when the entire journalism industry is facing so much change, this project is wonderful example of how, with all the technology we have available and publishing platforms, this can be a golden age for investigative journalism,” Alison says.