Documentary movies draw attention to the atomic city

Dawn Chapman and Karen Nickel of Just MomsSTL said some of the most effective media getting the message out about the fight against radioactive contamination at West Lake — and the sad impact of St. Louis’s atomic legacy — have been film documentaries.

“We are thankful to any filmmaker who looks at our history of radioactive waste in St. Louis and decides it’s worthwhile to
capture on film,” said Chapman. “Each of the films made thus far do an amazing job focusing on it from a different perspective.

“Tony West, along with Denise Brock, did ‘The Safe Side of the Fence,’ which focused on the Weldon Springs atomic plant and the workers. C.D. Stelzer did a heck of a job with the ‘First Secret City’ film giving the background and showing how much was known about the radioactive waste in our communities versus what was actually made public.

“And now we have the documentary, ‘Atomic Homefront’ on HBO, which focuses more on the current battles between agencies and communities fighting to get answers on West Lake and its many dangers. This is needed information that the people of St. Louis and the entire nation have a legal right to know,” Chapman said.

Atomic Homefront
(Can be viewed on HBO and HBO GO.) 

Deadline Hollywood describes this recent movie as a “deep dive into the history of the illegal dumping and government lethargy verging on indifference in the face of devastating and ongoing new evidence about its impact.”

According to Deadline Hollywood, the film shows how the federal government dumped radioactive refuse from uranium processing in a leaky landfill, and nature did the rest, leeching the poison into soil and water. As if that weren’t bad enough, the review notes, an underground fire is making its way toward this radioactive junk yard in the suburbs, and no one is doing anything to extinguish it.

“If you’re not screaming mad by the end of Atomic Homefront,” wrote Elias Savada in Film International, “you obviously believe the system works.”

First Secret City
(Can be viewed on Amazon Prime, Vimeo on Demand and purchased as a DVD on their website.)

St. Louis Magazine reviewed the documentary by C.D. Stelzer and Alison Carrick in 2015 when it was screened for the St. Louis International Film Festival.

The review praises the two film collaborators for combining old-school investigative reporting and historic video footage,
including some 1950’s animated sequences, a clip of Robert Oppenheimer, and an old public access TV show featuring interviews with Atomic Energy Commission scientists. The interviews manage to be simultaneously hilarious and disturbing.

A question posed to film subjects is how such a critical radioactive crisis in the St. Louis region could go unnoticed for so
long. The interviews reveal several explanations involving politics, seamy public relations, outright cover-ups, political corruption and more. But the biggest factor could simply be human psychology — the preference to stay “in denial” when a problem seems so big as to be insurmountable.

The Safe Side of the Fence
(Can be viewed on iTunes, Amazon Prime, opPRIME.TV and purchased as a DVD on their website.) 

Cinema St. Louis describes this 2015 movie as, in part, the story of how the top secret Manhattan Project had a tough assignment to find a partner willing to refine massive amounts of uranium. Edward Mallinckrodt Jr., who ran a small chemical company in St. Louis, agreed to take on the job.

As a result, the Mallinckrodt employees became some of the most contaminated nuclear workers in history, although the company prospered. St. Louis was left to deal with the consequences of creating the world’s first nuclear waste from the manufacture of atomic weapons.

Seventy years later, the city’s nuclear legacy continues to have damaging effects. The steps required to keep workers and the public safe from these dangerous materials presents a never-ending, nightmarish challenge.

“If we were to do a documentary,” said Chapman of Just Moms STL, “we would really focus on the people who are sick, and have been exposed, and their daily fight to save others. That to us is the most amazing thing we have witnessed throughout the past five years of our battles.

“Ordinary people, who are already sick from exposure, keep fighting even though it’s too late for them,” said Chapman. “But still, they get up everyday and in between chemo treatments, they are making phone calls to elected officials, sending emails and spreading the word. It’s all in the hope that they can spare one more person from going through the hell they are dealing with.”