By Elias Savada.
If you’re not screaming mad by the end of Atomic Homefront, you obviously believe the system works. As a study in government failure and corporate greed, this HBO-supported documentary from director Rebecca Cammisa shows that your trust is grievously and tragically misplaced if you expect the Environmental Protection Agency to serve a desperate public. Likewise, if you believe a large waste service company would provide honest guidance and responsibility in serving its customers, think again.
This passionate film, having its world premiere as one of the 11 Spotlight Screenings at AFI DOCS in Washington DC, is a heart breaker. Cammisa, an Oscar nominee for her 2009 documentary feature Which Way Home (dealing with child migrants) and her 2012 short God Is the Bigger Elvis (a lovely look at Dolores Hart, a Hollywood actress turned nun), spent several years following the problems of two St. Louis neighborhoods that have seen their residents ravaged by cancer and death.
Gasland (2010), an alarmist tale about the dangers of fracking, was another HBO supported documentary — nominated for an Oscar and winner of an Emmy — which shared similarly depressing scenes about big bad corporate America. The only thing missing in either of these films is Erin Brockovich, but there are plenty of up-in-arms ladies making a bold attempt to rile city, state, and federal officials out of their stupor as the three ugly ducklings of uranium, thorium, and radium wallow around their neighborhoods.
Cammisa’s new effort is a crusader’s look at the environmental fallout resulting from nuclear waste issues in two St. Louis communities. Eighty-five years ago, this city was picked as a uranium processing center to make material used to create the first atomic bombs. A quarter century later, the waste was moved to the northern suburbs and dumped in a landfill. There’s a second neighborhood, four miles away, along the Coldwater Creek Flood Plain, similarly contaminated.
As the film opens, you’ll find radiochemist Dr. Michael K. Schultz trekking along the railroad tracks on an industrial side of town. It’s a chilly day, but he seems energized. He pulls out a device some of us might remember from a 1950s educational short or perhaps an A-bomb inspired horror film: a Geiger counter. Digging into the railroad’s gravel bed, the meter is already registering past the top of the scale. I’m just wondering if his coat, gloves, and hat are offering enough protection.
The nearby neighborhoods have baseball fields, middle class homes with nice green lawns, and angry residents. The sad truth for parents here is that on a beautiful day, they have to reign in their kids’ desires to play outdoors. The air looks clean, but it’s anything but. Anywhere else, Tommy and Jane would be tossing a Frisbee and shooting hoops. In Dawn Chapman’s home, she’s focused on the weather. So is Robbin Dailey. And Jenny Turner. And too many others. They live in the shadow of the Bridgeton-West Lake Landfill, and the weather can cause some freakishly bad, and radioactive, smells.
All these folks were clueless about the radioactive trash next door, until the stink started, a condition caused by an underground fire, a.k.a. Subsurface Smoldering Event. Mix that with 47,000 tons (!) of Uranium 238, Thorium 230, and Radium 226, and you’ve got trouble in river city.
Local first responders, who should be learning the latest responses dealing with an ever-growing opioid crisis, are instead being taught about identifying and dealing with possible radioactive scenarios no one thought about during the heyday of the Manhattan Project. Fire officials, scientists, experts all provide warnings to anyone watching — Let’s Fix This! Except that a solution presented by the EPA won’t solve the problem in time (and under President Trump, I suspect the money won’t be there either, although the situation arose before he became president). The landfill has been on the Superfund site list since 1990.
Until then (and that’s supplemented a big if), some of the three million locals should have their bags packed and ready to vamoose. A grass roots organization (Just Moms STL) of parents, environmentalists, community activists was created, and Cammisa and her crew follow their Mr. Smith Goes to Washington efforts over a period going back to 2014, when the Feds put a very sad best foot forward, having no knowledge about low level radiation effects. Their solutions are laughable; responsibility gets tossed about like a game of tag. If you get the idea someone’s dragging their feet, so did the folks already living in this nightmare. Too much tragedy was already in their neighborhood.
The filmmaker blends archival footage, poignant aerial shots, damning local television news stories, in-your-face confrontations, alarming interviews, cancer-coded maps, and arresting animated imagery into one helluva statement. Among the talking heads is Lois Gibbs, the disciplined “accidental environmentalist” born of the Love Canal dioxin fiasco decades ago under President Carter’s administration. Sadly, the government seems to have forgotten his remarks in the aftermath of that crisis, “There must never be on our country, another Love Canal.”
But wait, there’s more! Across town, people are dying from cancer. Lots of them.
Around Coldwater Creek, the Army Corps of Engineers fumbles their part in this disaster. It doesn’t seem to grasp the depth of the issue, and neither does downtown employer Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, which did the government’s uranium processing during WWII. In a revelatory moment, secret 1964 reports written by Dr. Thomas Mancuso for the Atomic Energy Commission, about cancer risks within the company’s workforce — long pushed under the rug — are unearthed and the deceit continues with confidential information about the resulting post-war deaths.
The depths of deception are extraordinary, particularly one from one cross-eyed spokesman for Republic Services, the company overseeing the landfill. Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment Group (Code of Ethics viewable here) owns 31% of it; guess he’s too busy fighting malaria to force the company to do the right thing in St. Louis. Hey, Bill, how about offering some of your Giving Pledge billions to the good folks of Missouri?
There is much ignorance in evidence from too many government bureaucrats and company spokespeople. Parks are contaminated, yet city officials keep them open. And the budget — even before Trump castrates it — is not enough to solve the problem. “Insufficient funds and insufficient time,” a frustrated program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers laments.
There’s plenty of heartbreak here, especially as the camera follows 44-year-old wife and mother Michelle Seger, diagnosed with stage four cancer. The failure of this country’s elected officials, its appointed administrators, and the silent companies and their executives to step forward is a sad commentary on our state of existence. In a sad postscript, which I heard about from the film’s producers, St. Louis officials stripped away all $25 million it had previously allocated to fix the problem. There’s no happy ending to Atomic Homefront. It’s hard to believe there ever will be.
If Camissa is looking to alarm her audience, Atomic Homefront has sure done that. And the folks in St. Louis are pissed. For the folks who may soon be glowing in the darkness along the Mississippi River, government and corporate malfeasance is wreaking havoc on its residents. The clock is ticking.
The film will have a limited theatrical release this Fall and will eventually air on a date TBD on HBO.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).