More than a decade ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was alerted to the danger posed by hundreds of forgotten factory sites that operated from the 1930s to 1960s and likely contaminated surrounding properties with hazardous levels of lead. A researcher even gave the agency a list of the sites' locations. Yet a 14-month USA TODAY investigation has found that the EPA and state regulators did little to assess the danger around many of the sites, leaving thousands of families in harm's way.
Regulators never looked for some of the sites, at others investigations were cursory. Even when regulators did soil sampling and found dangerous levels of lead in neighborhoods, they filed away the reports and never warned people living nearby that their children could be poisoned by the simple act of playing in the dirt. Meanwhile, some children who played in contaminated yards have dangerous levels of lead in their bodies, medical records obtained by USA TODAY showed.
USA TODAY reporters traveled to 13 states and tested more than 1,000 samples of soil in 21 neighborhoods near former smelter sites. In numerous locations, the soil was so contaminated that children shouldn't be playing in it.
Even before the series was published, government agencies began taking actions at old smelter sites in 14 states.
The two-part Ghost Factories series was published in print on April 19 and 20. In addition to the investigative news articles, the online project website includes a massive interactive with:
- 14 videos telling the stories of people living in fallout zones, profiling neighborhoods and explaining how USA TODAY did its investigation.
- Extensive site profiles of more than 230 former factory sites where USA TODAY found evidence of smelting, foundry work or lead manufacturing.
- Rare online access to historical Sanborn fire insurance maps for more than 170 of the sites. The maps are either overlayed onto modern Google satellite imagry or presented in an interactive mode that allows users to zoom in and explore.
- Soil testing data mapped onto the 21 neighborhoods where USA TODAY did its sampling.
- Copies of hundreds of government reports and other records allowing users to dig deeper into sites of greatest interest.
As a reporter, this was a unique project. Not only did I file more than 140 open records requests, report and write the stories, graphics and online interactive text, I was also trained to test soil with a $41,000 hand-held XRF analyzer.
I also shot most of the video and many of the still photographs used in the online and print packages. Examples include videos of the former John T. Lewis/National Lead smelter site in Philadelphia, Loewenthal Metals in Chicago, and Allied Smelting near Milwaukee.
The complex online interactive involved a significant team effort. Full credits are listed in the "About the Project" link at the top of the Ghost Factories interactive.