'Atomic Homefront': Film Review

A straightforward account of activist battles over a frighteningly contaminated site.
11/17/2017

Rebecca Cammisa's doc looks at the St. Louis-area site of radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project.

A calmly infuriating look at an environmental nightmare that will have many viewers wondering, "Why haven't I heard of this before?," Rebecca Cammisa's Atomic Homefront introduces the Missouri communities which claim the dubious honor of having some of the world's oldest atomic waste buried in their backyards. More straightforward and less muckraker-ish in tone than many similarly themed documentaries, the film lacks some of the cinematic punch that can help break through the noise of a thousand tales of governmental and corporate wrongdoing. But its dedicated interviewees make the subject's seriousness undeniable and, with luck, their cause will attract attention as the film tours theatrically.

A company called Mallinckrodt in downtown St. Louis once processed uranium for the Manhattan Project, the top-secret operation that produced the world's first nuclear weapons. The waste from this process was at one point stored near a local airport, and in a transfer that sounds much less careful than it should have been, it wound up buried in the West Lake Landfill near Bridgeton, a St. Louis suburb.

Most people buying homes in the area knew nothing about the waste, even when the site was found so contaminated it was added to the government's Superfund list of toxic clean-up priorities. But over the years, "The Stink" attracted their attention; locals investigated and became convinced that the 47,000 tons of radioactive materials buried there were directly related to the wave of sickness here — every sort of cancer associated with radiation, according to one interviewee.

The EPA placed the site on its Superfund list way back in 1990, but the intervening years haven't seen much action: An underground fire (known as a subsurface smoldering event, or SSE) has been allowed to burn in another section of the landfill for many years, threatening to spread and, according to activists, make radioactive materials airborne via smoke particles.

It won't take a bonfire to spread the materials, though: Testing has shown that neighbors have radioactive substances from this site inside their homes, presumably thanks to flooding during a period when waste was moved carelessly.

Neither governmental regulators nor the site's corporate owners, a giant waste-removal outfit called Republic Services, have given locals much reason to think their complaints are being heard. Trying to stir the pot, activists trekked to Washington and tried to meet with then-EPA head Gina McCarthy; they then walked over to the Gates Foundation, hoping that Bill Gates, reportedly the largest shareholder in Republic Services, could make things happen for them in between cleaning up water supplies in Africa and South Asia. They were rebuffed at both offices.

Dawn Chapman emerges as the doc's hero, working with a group called Just Moms STL. Like others on her team, she feels she had activism thrust upon her, and juggles vast bodies of research and outreach while caring for her family. (On the phone in one scene, she begs for a child's patience by saying, "Honey, I'm talking to the Attorney General's office.") Just Moms enlists a like-minded character from the past: Lois Gibbs, who was just a mother when she found herself in the middle of the 1970s Love Canal disaster and stumbled into a life of activism. (Her work, in fact, led to the creation of the Superfund program.)

Preferring to stick almost entirely with the experiences and concerns of the landfill's neighbors, some of whom died of cancer during production, Cammisa chooses not to bring in journalists or scholars who might have bolstered their credibility with viewers who buy Republic's "everything is fine" message. She also doesn't explore whatever outside factors might justify the slow movement of the EPA and other officials, some of whom at least pay lip service to wanting to clean up the site.

On the latter point, Cammisa has a good excuse: Most of the relevant officials — just like Republic representatives and the Gates Foundation — refused her requests for interviews.

Distributor: HBO Documentary Films
Director: Rebecca Cammisa
Producers: Larissa Bills, Rebecca Cammisa, James B. Freydberg
Director of photography: Claudia Raschke
Editor: Madeleine Gavin
Composer: Robert Miller

96 minutes