Ronnie Greene Wins August Sidney for Miami Herald Story about Toxic Town Taking on Corporate Goliath | Hillman Foundation

Ronnie Greene Wins August Sidney for Miami Herald Story about Toxic Town Taking on Corporate Goliath

NEW YORK: The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that Ronnie Greene has won the August Sidney Award for a two-part (part onepart two), 5,600-word series about how a tiny Florida town of eighty families challenged the Lockheed Martin Corporation to compensate it for the devastating pollution caused by a defunct plant which manufactured parts for nuclear weapons.

The former American Beryllium Company plant in the predominantly African-American town of Tallevast in Manatee County was opened in 1961 and shuttered in 1996. Greene reported that “the plant manufactured machine parts for nuclear weapons using beryllium-containing metals. Workers inhaled hazardous dust and handled a toxic degreaser that cleaned machine parts.”

Three weeks after Greene’s stories were published in The Miami Herald, Lockheed Martin announced a tentative settlement of a five year-old lawsuit filed by residents seeking compensation from the company for depressed property values. The suit was scheduled to go to trial next month. Details of the settlement have not been made public.

Among the story’s findings:

  • In January 2000, as it prepared to sell the plant it had recently purchased, Lockheed Martin discovered a leak of solvents used in those degreasers. The leaching, state officials say, could have begun 38 years earlier and, stunningly, gone undetected until then.
  • They discovered an underground plume seeping 200 acres in a town of 1.5 square miles, where a number of residents still drank and showered from well water. The main hazard in that toxic cesspool was TCE, a cancer-causing chemical used in the degreaser that, five years earlier, had drawn attention in the book A Civil Action over contamination in a small Massachusetts town.
  • The people of Tallevast were told nothing and discovered the news by chance more than three years later, in September 2003.
  • The town has had more than 80 cancer cases over the past three decades–on average, one for every home in town.
  • Today the defense contractor estimates it will take 50 years to clean the mess.

“This fine piece of investigative journalism may have provided part of the necessary pressure to force this multi-national corporation to finally reach a settlement with the struggling residents of this tiny Florida town,” said Sidney Award judge Charles Kaiser.

Ronnie Greene is the Investigations and Government editor at The Miami Herald, where he spent nine years as an investigative reporter before becoming an editor in 2007. Greene’s projects have exposed exploitation of laborers at the bottom of Florida’s agricultural industry, deadly conditions of small, under-the-radar air cargo planes, and corruption at Miami’s airport. He is author of Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, And Margie Richard’s Fight To Save Her Town (HarperCollins/Amistad, 2008), a nonfiction environmental justice narrative. Greene also teaches journalism at the University of Miami.

The Sidney Award is given once a month to an outstanding piece of socially-conscious journalism by the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which also awards the annual Hillman Prizes every spring. For more information please click here.

For an interview with Greene about the piece, click here.

Since 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation has honored journalists whose work fosters social and economic justice. Our prizes and awards celebrate the legacy and vision of Sidney Hillman, founder of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, a predecessor union to Workers United, SEIU.

Interview with Ronnie Greene

AUGUST, 2010

Ronnie Greene discusses his stories (part onepart two) about how a tiny Florida town challenged the Lockheed Martin Corporation to compensate it for the devastating pollution caused by a defunct plant.

1. Why did you decide to look into Tallevast, Florida and its fight with Lockheed Martin over environmental contamination?

I began exploring issues in Tallevast in 2008, and the timing coincided with the publication of a book I had just completed, Night Fire: Big Oil, Poison Air, And Margie Richard’s Fight To Save Her Town.

Night Fire explored how a four-street minority community in Norco, Louisiana – not far from New Orleans – had spent more than a decade battling chemical plants and refineries that literally towered over their neighborhood, Diamond. As Night Fire was being published, I asked experts about other cases of environmental justice in the U.S. One pointed me to Tallevast, describing the town’s battle with industry and government as perhaps the most significant in the country.

I wrote a takeout about that struggle in 2008, but kept thinking back to the issues and the people. This year, I made two return reporting trips, which formed much of the basis of the Toxic Town series.

2. What surprised you as you did your research?

Many things were surprising, but perhaps none more than the fact that the town had been polluted with a cancer-causing chemical – but no one told the residents. Not the state, not the county, not industry. When I asked the state of Florida why, an official explained that there were no regulations on the books requiring notification. That later changed – through a bill inspired by Tallevast’s plight – but it had come too late for the residents of this historic black hamlet.

Another surprising thing was how I kept seeing parallels to the environmental struggle in Louisiana. There, after a decade confronting Shell Oil, the Diamond residents scored a historic, long-sought relocation from big industry; Diamond homes stood just 25 feet from the fenceline of a Shell Chemical Plant. Tallevast residents have also sought relocation, but Lockheed Martin has, to date, refused – just as Shell initially refused relocation requests in Norco. As in Louisiana, the people of Tallevast have turned to the courts in a bid for justice. And, as in Louisiana, there is palpable concern about the community’s health and its connection to industry. Lockheed Martin, which owned the shuttered beryllium plant at the time of the leak’s discovery, said it has capped the pollution.

But mostly, the lessons from Tallevast are told through the residents and their quest to preserve the legacy of their blue-collar town. Nearly everyone in town is related to someone else; the family trees stretch back generations. Though the town is blanketed by this underground plume, and residents are seeking relocation, many are heartbroken by the prospect of one day leaving Tallevast. When they do, the family trees will no longer sprout.

3. What has the response been since you published it?

From the start, I’ve felt this was an important story to tell, hearing from all sides in the divide – community, government, industry. The response from readers has supported that view.

On another front, Lockheed Martin and the residents this month announced a settlement, in principle, to a major contamination lawsuit that was to go to trial in October. The settlement terms are confidential, and neither side is talking. But this is a significant step, the first time the residents and the Fortune 500 company have come to terms on a major issue dividing them. What this means for other issues – several lawsuits remain pending, as does the community’s relocation request – remains to play out.

Ronnie Greene