By Alison Young and Peter Eisler, USAToday
A scientific journal article 10 years ago warned that people living near hundreds of forgotten lead factory sites could be in danger.
Did the government heed the warning? And was the threat real?
Those are the questions that launched USA TODAY’s “Ghost Factories” investigation.
The newspaper’s initial 14-month probe found state and federal regulators had left thousands of families in harm’s way, doing little to examine the properties or warn residents of the danger posed by lead-contaminated soil in their yards. USA TODAY reporters investigated more than 460 old smelter sites nationwide. Then they tested more than 1,000 samples of soil in 21 smelter neighborhoods in 13 states and found hazardous lead levels in many areas.
The newspaper’s ongoing investigation, which began nearly two years ago, has resulted in the EPA reexamining risks at 464 sites nationwide. More than a dozen state agencies also have been conducting investigations. Several sites are already being targeted for cleanups. In Portland, Ore., more than 20 tons of heavily contaminated soil is being removed from the yard of a house built atop a forgotten smelter site and the state says others also will likely need cleanups. In Edison, N.J., the EPA is planning to spend up to $1.26 million replacing contaminated soil at several homes around another smelter site.
To produce the “Ghost Factories” project, USA TODAY journalists used a wide range of innovative reporting and storytelling techniques – combining the research of archival maps, photographs and dusty old records with the use of state-of-the-art scientific instruments and digital publishing technology.
In addition to publishing traditional investigative stories detailing the newspaper’s findings, a centerpiece of the project is a massive, multi-dimensional digital interactive that has empowered communities and government officials to explore in detail the danger USA TODAY has documented at each of more than 230 confirmed factory sites. The interactive includes a dozen videos; more than 160 interactive historical maps showing the factories when they were in operation; more than 15,000 pages of government documents; and detail of USA TODAY’s soil sampling results mapped so users can better see what we found and where. The interactive and ongoing series are available at: Ghost Factories.
William Eckel, the environmental scientist who published the 2001 journal article, has praised USA TODAY for advancing his initial work: “It was kind of humbling to see that someone had taken seriously enough to put that kind of effort into following up,” he said.
For his journal article, Eckel had compiled a list of companies listed in industry directories during the 1940s-1960s as battery lead smelters or solder manufacturers, then checked his list against EPA records, finding that about 460 of them were potentially “unrecognized” by regulators. Because the addresses were gathered from industry directories, it was possible that some could be business offices rather than factory locations. For his article he confirmed that 20 of them were factory sites by using Sanborn fire insurance maps; he noted that another 86 sites were listed in the directories as “plant” locations. These preliminary findings, the article warned, “should create some sense of urgency for the investigation of the other sites identified here.”
USA TODAY reporter Alison Young, who had written and edited projects on the dangers of other old smelter sites for the Dallas Times Herald and the Detroit Free Press, had read Eckel’s study after it was published in 2001. She had always wanted to know whether regulators had taken any action. To find out, Young filed the first of her more than 140 federal, state and local open records requests in late December 2010.
To determine which of the companies on Eckel’s list were factories – rather than just business offices – Young and intern Nicole Dao spent weeks in the basement of the Library of Congress researching old Sanborn fire insurance maps. The maps show details of buildings that would interest fire insurance companies, such as construction materials and commercial uses. At many of the lead factories, the number and approximate locations of furnaces and melting kettles are shown. They were later joined in the archival research by reporter Peter Eisler. Photo journalist Denny Gainer photographed each of the maps and later lead efforts to make them interactive using Zoomify and at key sites, painstakingly overlaying them on modern Google satellite images.
To assess whether neighborhoods around the old smelter sites were contaminated, Young and Eisler were trained by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a leading scientific instruments company, to operate rented $41,000 handheld XRF analyzers, which use X-rays to measure the lead content of soil. USA TODAY filed required regulatory registrations in each state tested and equipped both reporters with dosimeters to monitor their radiation exposure, which was minimal. Young, working with a soil testing expert at Tulane University, developed a protocol for USA TODAY’s research, then created detailed sampling plans for each of the 21 neighborhoods to be tested. Wind patterns were studied for each area and testing zones were targeted on Google Earth satellite images that were later printed in plans the reporters could carry while working in the field. Newsroom lawyers helped develop consent forms for samples taken on private property. (To watch a video about our soil sampling process, go to: How USA TODAY tested soil)
Constructing the massive interactive took months and a large team that brought together expertise from across USA TODAY’s newsroom and Gannett Digital. The overarching goal of the interactive was to present traditional investigative findings in a new and highly interactive way, allowing users to go as deep as they wanted and empowering individual communities with as much information as possible to take action. A full list of the team as well as more details about what it took to produce the project are available by clicking on the “About the project” link in the upper right corner of the interactive: http://usat.ly/UeEROa.
• Sanborn maps: A great resource for environmental investigations and demographic stories. Originally created for fire insurance companies, these maps detail property use over time. Regional collections of the maps are often available at university libraries, and some libraries have computer access to a digital selection of Sanborn maps. Check out USA TODAY’s video About Sanborn Maps.
• DocumentCloud: Show readers your sources. A service of Investigative Reporters and Editors, DocumentCloud allows news organizations to privately upload original source documents for research and makes later publication very easy: DocumentCloud.
• Scientific testing: Research the scientific literature and best practices. Find an expert willing to help, and if possible, to validate your work with independent tests. Consult with your lawyers about any potential issues.
• Video: It’s critical for reporters to learn to shoot video. You may only get one opportunity to get people to talk. If you’re traveling across the country, it’s efficient to collect the video along the way. Most of the video used in Ghost Factories was shot using a small HD flip cam.
• Digital content editing: If online content is going to be published outside of traditional editing systems, create a system to ensure all content is reviewed. To allow easy updating of content in the “Ghost Factories” interactive, database editors built an editing application and put it on an internal server, allowing reporters and editors to write and edit most of the content outside of the interactive. A database editor wrote a Python script to generate one JSON file out of the database for each of the factory sites in the interactive.
• Managing multimedia demands: Storytelling on multiple platforms takes more time and reporters can become bottlenecks because they have the content expertise needed by so many members of the team. The project editor can help by tracking and staggering the needs of video editors, interactive designers, animators, web staff and print editors.
“Ghost Factories,” by lead reporters Alison Young and Peter Eisler of USA Today, received the Barlett & Steele silver award of $2,000. The series involved a 14-month investigation that revealed locations of more than 230 long-forgotten smelters and the poisonous lead they left behind. Reporters used handheld X-ray devices to collect and test 1,000 soil samples to prove there was a serious threat to children living in dozens of neighborhoods.