In 1942, the U.S. government chose downtown St. Louis as a processing center of uranium for the first atomic bombs. Over the next 25 years, the radioactive waste from this processing center was moved to sites throughout the city’s northern and western suburbs, and eventually dumped into the West Lake Landfill in North St. Louis County. But until recently, many residents living near the landfill were unaware the waste had become a ticking time bomb.
Directed by Rebecca Cammisa (the Oscar®-nominated HBO documentaries “God Is the Bigger Elvis” and “Which Way Home”), the devastating documentary ATOMIC HOMEFRONT exposes the lasting toxic effects nuclear waste can have on communities when it debuts MONDAY, FEB. 12 (8:00-9:40 p.m. ET/PT), on HBO.
The film will also be available on HBO On Demand, HBO NOW, HBO GO and affiliate portals.
Focusing on a group of moms-turned-advocates in St. Louis and filmed over the course of three years beginning in 2014, ATOMIC HOMEFRONT focuses on two communities that mobilize to get answers from corporations, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other government agencies. The residents of Bridgeton, Missouri live adjacent to an uncontrolled subsurface fire at the Bridgeton-West Lake Landfill, which is moving towards illegally dumped radioactive waste. In Florissant, Missouri, four miles from the landfill, the neighborhood waterway Coldwater Creek meanders through the suburbs for a 14-mile stretch.
Coldwater Creek headwaters are eight miles from West Lake Landfill. Former and current longtime residents in the Coldwater Creek watershed are reporting high rates of cancers, other diseases and birth defects, possibly the result of ionizing radiation from the creek and its historical flooding, following the Manhattan Project nuclear weapons waste creek contamination of prior decades. The community group Coldwater Creek – Just the Facts is helping educate the community and healthcare professionals, working towards inclusion in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act and advocating for additional testing and remediation in the Coldwater Creek watershed. ATOMIC HOMEFRONT follows Jenell Wright, co-founder of Just the Facts, as she works to get answers about the extent of the creek’s contamination.
The film also spotlights everyday citizens, including moms Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel, who form the group Just Moms STL and go on to confront the EPA, state regulators and Republic Services, the owner and operator of the landfill.
In the 1940s, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis produced much of the radioactive material used for the first nuclear bombs, and waste from that plant was transferred to St. Louis Lambert Airport and subsequently dumped into the West Lake Landfill by a subcontractor. Today, an underground fire on the Bridgeton side of the landfill is dangerously close to 47,000 tons of radioactive waste located on the West Lake side.
In Sept. 2014, Just Moms STL, along with other concerned residents, attends a community meeting attended by the EPA to discuss the landfill fire. Though West Lake Landfill was designated a Superfund site in 1990, residents are frustrated to learn that an isolation barrier to keep the fire from the radiation waste is merely a proposal, and has not even been designed years later. The community fears that nothing will keep the fire from reaching the radioactive waste.
Coldwater Creek resident Michelle Seger, who has been diagnosed with stage three non-small cell lung cancer, recalls how she often played as a child in the creek. Since 1997, The Army Corps of Engineers’ FUSRAP program has been removing uranium 238, thorium 230 and radium 226, but only in the industrial zones adjacent to Coldwater Creek, and insufficient funding has slowed the process. Coldwater Creek communities have waited years for FUSRAP to start testing residential areas like public parks and backyards adjacent to the creek.
As historian Kay Drey explains, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works started processing uranium for the U.S. government in 1942. The waste from Mallinckrodt was trucked out of the city to a site near St. Louis Lambert Airport, then sold to the Cotter Corporation, which dried the waste and shipped it by rail to Colorado. Approximately 47,000 tons of waste remained, and in 1973, Cotter hired a trucking company, which then dumped the waste into the West Lake Landfill.
Increasingly desperate, Just Moms STL reaches out to its congressional representatives to contact EPA head Gina McCarthy. Receiving no response from her office, Chapman and other members of Just Moms travel to D.C., where, with help from environmental pioneer Lois Gibbs, they hold a press conference and stage a protest at EPA headquarters and the Gates Foundation offices. (Bill Gates owns a large stake in Republic Services, which is the U.S.’s second-largest waste disposal company, and owns and operates the landfill.) Chapman is crestfallen that no one from the EPA or the Gates Foundation will meet with them.
In Oct. 2015, after the state releases a report confirming that the fire has spread closer to the radioactive material, four nearby school districts send letters to parents outlining their emergency-action plan in the event of a radioactive incident. Just Moms STL calls a community meeting, which is packed with shocked and angry residents, many of whom have just learned about the landfill and its risks.
Under increased public pressure, the EPA announces it will order a barrier wall to be built. One month later, however, new data shows that the radiation has migrated farther south and is now closer to the fire – and that radiation has also been found outside the landfill perimeter.
After tests reveal dangerous levels of thorium 230 inside the home of Robbin and Mike Dailey, they file a lawsuit against multiple parties involved with the landfill, including Republic Services and Mallinckrodt. Meanwhile, Dawn Chapman and Just Moms STL meet with an EPA representative, who admits off-camera that monitors have picked up radioactive particles, albeit not at “actionable levels.” Chapman no longer feels that she and her family are safe inside their home, but Just Moms STL continues to fight for a government buyout and relocation of residents.
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