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Ghost Factories

USA TODAY, 2012-2013

(Read Ghost Factories stories HERE)

The Environmental Protection Agency was warned in 2001 that soil in hundreds of U.S. neighborhoods might be dangerously contaminated with lead from factories that closed long ago. Yet USA TODAY’s “Ghost Factories” investigation found state and federal regulators largely ignored the danger and left thousands of families in harm’s way, doing little to check out the factory sites or warn area residents.


The series quickly drew calls for action from seven U.S. senators and led the EPA to re-examine health risks at 464 sites nationwide. More than a dozen states launched their own investigations and targeted several sites for cleanups.

I led a team of reporters that spent spent weeks in the basement of the Library of Congress researching hand-drawn Sanborn fire insurance maps that date back to the 1800s and show details about industrial property uses. We dug into historical phone books and city directories, and pored through records from libraries, historical societies and city archives to find factories regulators had said couldn’t be located.


I filed more than 140 open-records requests for this project and worked with Howard Mielke of Tulane University to develop soil testing protocols to investigate sites across the country.  Using XRF analyzers, we tested more than 1,000 soil samples from yards, parks and ball fields in 13 states. The samples showed that children in dozens of neighborhoods are living and playing in soil contaminated with lead – sometimes at levels five to 10 times what the EPA considers hazardous.

The project was groundbreaking for its use of technology and testing -- and also for a complex digital interactive that showed what our investigation found at all 237 confirmed factory sites. This interactive once had a web page for each site, displaying copies of old insurance maps and more than 15,000 pages of government records. The results of every soil test were displayed on interactive maps.

Unfortunately, as has happened to digital projects produced by news organizations across the country, the Ghost Factories interactive, videos and stories no longer exist online -- the victim of technology upgrades that did not preserve older content. 

The material here in pdf format represents select stories and images from the series. Some digital material from the interactive can be found through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.