2022 Knight Award for Public Service finalist

Ghosts of Polluters Past

About the Project

“Ghosts of Polluters Past” presents a troubling account of the pervasiveness of toxic soil lead contamination in America’s urban centers, and the cumulative impact of industrialization and racial inequities.

Grist senior staff writer Yvette Cabrera paints a poignant portrait of the Mexican American Logan barrio in the city of Santa Ana and its nearly century-long struggle to fight industrial pollution that made it difficult for residents to live and breathe. She spent more than half a decade investigating industrial contamination in the low-income, predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Santa Ana, California. After independently gathering and analyzing more than 1,600 soil samples, as well as combing through six decades of industrial data, Cabrera revealed that more than half of the soil samples she collected in the city’s poorest neighborhoods contained levels of lead that California considers unsafe for children. Through historical documents, Cabrera also reveals how the legacy of discriminatory policies such as housing segregation via racially restrictive deeds, as well as zoning decisions, systematically barred people of color from healthier neighborhoods in Santa Ana while exposing areas such as the Logan barrio to freeway emissions and polluting industries.

Cabrera’s findings have ramifications for residents across the country. Because of the way small industrial operations spread through urban areas during the 20th century without any oversight — the Environmental Protection Agency didn’t comprehensively regulate toxic releases until the late 1980s — many (perhaps most) urban residents unknowingly live in neighborhoods burdened by toxic contaminants, which remain in soil long after the businesses that dumped them are gone. Cabrera’s work provides a model for how enterprising journalists can uncover this hidden history, making it accessible to residents and empowering them to take control of their environments.

In “Toxic Churn,” Cabrera and her colleague Clayton Aldern, Grist’s senior data reporter, outline how the toxic legacy of soil lead in urban neighborhoods across the U.S. has largely escaped regulatory scrutiny. Decades of lead use in everything from car batteries to paint to gasoline has allowed this invisible neurotoxicant to pervade every aspect of our urban lives and environment. Yet even the most rigorous governmental data, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, a federal database that catalogs 35 years of site-specific pollution, doesn’t indicate the hazards reflected in soil lead contamination mapped by Grist.