Update: Atomic Homefront is now available to book for screenings and educational use. Please find information on the Women Make Movies website.
New film, and a wealth of reporting, reveal a US community living with radioactive waste in their homes
By Linda Pentz Gunter
Compelling people stories is what we look for here at Beyond Nuclear International, and that is exactly what Atomic Homefront, the new documentary from Rebecca Cammisa, delivers. There is a lot of crying in Atomic Homefront, and with good reason. But these are tears of outrage as well as sorrow and loss. At the center of the film lies the undeniable yet shocking revelation: people in the USA are living with dangerous levels of radioactive waste in their homes. The company responsible, and even the federal government knew. And they did nothing. Worse, they rebuffed and rejected efforts by residents to get at the truth and force cleanup and reparation.
The radiation in question is not radon — a known phenomenon in homes that is usually tested for. It’s about the oldest radioactive waste from the Atomic Age. And it’s about deceit and denial. As one audience member at a public meeting shown in the film says: “I’ve been here ten minutes and I heard about it for two days and this is nuts!” The film’s viewing audience is likewise shocked, but, as a fellow meeting participant reposts wearily, “welcome to the party, pal.”
That moment comes in the midst of an already several years-long struggle by residents — mostly women — who decided to take on the environmental disaster that is the widespread radioactive contamination in their greater St. Louis communities. The radioactive waste got there because, during the Cold War, a St. Louis-based firm, Mallinckrodt, processed uranium from the Belgian Congo as part of the Manhattan Project. The radioactive waste they produced was illegally dumped in what was then surrounding countryside and at the West Lake Landfill, currently owned by a company called Republic Services.
But radioactive waste does not stay put, and countryside does not remain undeveloped. The radioactive waste seeped into creeks, and spread into parks and even homes. Alarmingly, there is now a creeping underground fire at the West Lake Landfill that threatens the nuclear waste dumped there as well.
Unsurprisingly, there are abnormally high rates of cancers in these communities. Two of those affected — a 15-year old boy and a 40-year old woman — are featured in the film, but did not survive to see it aired on HBO this past February. Kirbi Pemberton, whose then 11-year-old daughter died of a rare form of brain cancer in 2004, rightly rails at a smug official from the Environmental Protection Agency who claims she would contentedly live in their neighborhood: “I can’t physically bury another child and you tell me you want to live here!” she says.
For many of the residents, though, there is nowhere to run to. As Dawn Chapman explains, (pictured at top addressing a meeting in Bridgeton, MO), one of the activist leaders from a group of mothers now officially known as Just Moms St. Louis, she and her family would like to move away but “we just can’t afford it.”
It’s hard to understand how some of these officials can’t hear themselves. One actually tells a group of residents that he has not closed a playground area in a park, even though he knows it is contaminated with radiation, because, he asks, where else would the children play? The incredulous looks of disgust from parents do not even begin to describe how appalling that statement was.
Russ Knocke, Republic’s vice president for communications and public affairs, and one of the film’s villains-in-chief, calls the Moms’ concerns “hysteria,” in front of one of them when both were guests on a radio show. But his tactic of sexism mixed with denial and dismissiveness leaves the Moms undeterred.
Indeed, what is most striking in the film is the level of commitment shown by the Moms, who are also dealing with myriad health challenges at home, and financial hardships. As one describes it, they are living a “nightmare”, and yet they remind us that these struggles are won neither quickly nor easily. When they travel to Washington, DC, but are rebuffed by then Environmental Protection Agency chief, Gina McCarthy, at their first attempt at a meeting, Chapman sobs outside on the street. They feel despair, but they fight on.
In one memorable scene in the film, Chapman ponders what to put on her feet before going to yet another meeting. “Go for the boots, you’re gonna kick butt anyway,” says her loving and steadfast mother.
Along with sexism and silence, “science” is the other tactic thrown at the Moms by officials who smugly assert that they know better. (Moms are not supposed to understand “science.”) But in the end it is “science” that is undeniably on their side. One of the film’s protagonists, Robbin Dailey, reveals late in the film, that her home is contaminated with thorium-230 at levels about 1,000 times higher than normal “background” levels. This refutes once and for all the industry’s claims that the community is in no danger. It is also directly traceable to the Congo uranium processed by Mallinckrodt. As she describes this at a meeting, her husband, seated in the audience, breaks down.
And so we cry again. Which we should. Shortly before the film aired on HBO, the EPA announced a proposed final remedy for the West Lake Landfill. It calls for the removal of 67 percent of the radioactive waste to a maximum depth of 16 feet, the installation of an engineered cap to cover the remaining wastes, institutional controls, and monitoring. It’s too little, of course, but hopefully not too late.
“We were hoping for full, 100 percent excavation,” Chapman told the Washington Post. “But we know that would be difficult to accomplish.” What she and the Moms did accomplish, however, was, as their website puts it “a seat at this table.” The EPA “wants our input as to whether the removed waste should be stored on or offsite,” say the Moms. They are at least through the door, if not the glass ceiling. And they will keep breaking more doors down, no doubt, wise to the possibility (likelihood) that the EPA could weaken or withdraw its offer. Atomic Homefront is an eye-opening story. And an unfinished one.
To screen Atomic Homefront, please contact: Educational Sales, Women Make Movies, 115 West 29th Street, Suite 1200, New York, NY 10001. Tel: 212-925-0606. Or email Kristin Fitzpatrick, kfitzpatrick@WMM.com.
Atomic Homefront is one of three films about the atomic waste left behind in St. Louis. Two films from 2015 also tackle the subject — The First Secret City and The Safe Side of the Fence. Clips below.
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