I’ve only been to St. Louis once-we were performing in the St. Louis Jazz Festival and I regret to note that an inebriated bandmate might have felt the need to mark the occasion (and his territory) by taking a whizz on the Arch. It caused a lot of jokes about toxic waste.
I had no idea.
For whatever reason I end up screening quite a lot of depressing documentaries, but it’s been a while since I saw one that left me feeling as dirty, and angry, as Atomic Homefront. It’s very likely that unless you are a resident of the St. Louis suburbs, an environmental activist or an employee of the EPA you have not heard this story (plenty of people in those groups might be unaware of it too, which is part of the problem). The area processed waste for a little venture known as the Manhattan Project, including a particularly potent variety of uranium only mined in what is now the Republic of Congo (this is important to know because just in case the government or the landfill owners tell you that the uranium in your basement is naturally occurring, you can actually tell that it is Congolese and thus de facto an artifcat from the original nuclear bombs.) It was not widely known that Manhattan Project waste was dumped in this area until residents long troubled by an intermittent noxious stench discovered that there was a known underground fire burning in the landfill. Investigation led to the discovery that the underground fire is not only growing but it is adjacent to an old, unremediated dumping ground for radioactive waste. The owners and operators of the landfill (Republic Waste: They might even run your local waste removal service; they definitely serve my neighborhood) have been claiming for years that the fire is not a threat, that it is under control, and that there’s no way it could possibly come in contact with the vast field of buried radioactive waste a few hundred feet away. Also, “science” has been telling the residents of the area that they are in no danger from the radioactive waste field, even though it’s been a Superfund site since 1990.
After watching this documentary I am in some danger of slashing the tires of the next person who invokes “science” as clean, pure, empirical proof that something is true. Ideally, it should be and would be. But science gets bought and sold (and blindly consumed) like so much microwave popcorn. Believe otherwise at your own peril.
Director Rebecca Cammisa tracks the journeys of several residents of Bridgeton, Mo., and adjacent communities along Coldwater Creek (a floodplain that runs downstream from the nuclear dumping ground-floodplain as in the creek floods, and water spreads past its banks and into, for example, nearby homes, carrying with it soil and whatever might be in that soil, for example radioactive isotopes). Although “science” cannot corroborate any cause and effect here, the area is afflicted by astronomically high rates of cancer, pulmonary disease and multiple sclerosis, and if you map the reported cases they have an uncanny if unscientific concentration around the areas where nuclear waste would spread, if it were not being successfully contained, which officially it is, even though residents have had their homes tested and found radioactivity levels 1000 times the “acceptable” level suggested by the EPA.
One of the main subjects of the film is Dawn Chapman, a mother of three who started the organization Just Moms STL in an effort to hold the EPA’s feet to the smoldering subsurface fire in her neighborhood. (Poignant footage includes a scene where she’s struggling to wrangle kids, food and a phone call: “Honey… I’m on the phone with Attorney General’s office, OK?”) The group is joined by Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs in an attempt to talk with then EPA head Gina McCarthy about the situation. McCarthy refuses to see them. So does the Gates Foundation. So does most everyone, other than painfully patronizing town hall meeting visitors who present inscrutable slides about historical projections on health risk from radioactivity exposure and assure the residents they have nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, children and adults alike are dying from a spectrum of bizarre cancers known to be directly associated with non-theoretical nuclear waste exposure. Core samples taken farther and farther from the landfill site make Geiger counters go nuts. It’s clear that the entire community is screwed. No one takes responsibility. Republic Waste continues to maintain that the landfill is safe and well-managed. Pleas to assist with relocation and remediation fall on deaf ears. These perfectly-safe houses are unsellable (and who with a conscience would do it to another family even if the bottom hadn’t fallen out of the market?) and residents cannot afford to flee the leaking thoron and uranium. In one particularly shocking town hall scene, a woman speaks up about the family members (it’s most of them) who have battled and mostly died of cancer. That’s why she moved to St. Louis 20 years ago, to save her daughter. She was originally from Chernobyl.
I saw a critic refer to Atomic Homefront as “the feel-bad movie of the year,” and even though it’s only February, I can’t really disagree. This is a searing object lesson in government and corporate blindness, deafness, blame-shifting, ineptitude and irresponsibility. The film itself is shockingly quiet, mild-mannered and non-polemical, which only adds to the horror you’ll feel as you watch it. This is not a deliberately inflammatory film, and it doesn’t need to be. If the hopelessness and bleakness it evokes do not make you good and pissed, you might want to see a doctor and check to make sure you still have a pulse.
This film won’t be easy to watch, but I strongly recommend you do it. And maybe check the maps and be very aware of whether there are untreated Superfund sites near where you live.
Atomic Homefront premieres on HBO February 12 at 8 p.m. The movie will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, and HBO GO.