Film Review: Atomic HomefrontA compelling, infuriating documentary about the nuclear-waste crisis taking place in North St. Louis County, Missouri.
A documentary about shameful institutional conduct and heroic individual activism, Atomic Homefront details the ongoing crisis taking place in North St. Louis County, Missouri, where everything—water, land and even air—is brimming with radioactivity. Focused on the past three years of this nightmare, director Rebecca Cammisa’s nonfiction film is a work destined to enrage, at least with regards to its depiction of the Environmental Protection Agency’s response—or lack thereof—to a disaster of its own making. Systemic failures don’t get much more bald-faced than the mess presented here, which is combatted by a community of citizen activists forced into action in order to save themselves, and their loved ones, from a cancer plague ravaging their neighborhoods.
At the center of Atomic Homefront is Dawn Chapman, a local mother of two who helped found Just Moms STL, a grassroots organization determined—like other similar groups—to raise awareness about the nuclear fallout occurring in North St. Louis suburban backyards, and to convince the EPA to do something about it. As Cammisa lays out amidst her various subjects’ horror stories, the origin of this wretched situation dates back to April 1942, when the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works began secretly processing Belgian Congo uranium for use in the U.S. government’s first atomic bombs. More than half a century later, the deadly fruits of that Manhattan Project labor are now impossible to ignore: polluted streams, soil and dwellings, as well as a cancer epidemic that, it appears, is caused by radioactive materials stored at the nearby West Lake Landfill.
The EPA classified that locale as a Superfund site (i.e., one of the country’s most contaminated areas) back in 1990. And it’s now also home to a Subsurface Smoldering Event (in other words, a giant underground fire) that’s fast approaching the landfill’s radioactive material—and if that happens, airborne toxicity could cause an outright natural disaster. Despite such a grave predicament, Dawn and her many colleagues find it nearly impossible to motivate the EPA to take the measures necessary to prevent catastrophe; instead, at community forums, they’re repeatedly advised to just go inside when the persistent stench becomes too bad, and to make evacuation or shelter-in-place plans in case the worst comes to pass. All the while, waste-management company Republic Services (which owns the landfill) claims that the fire isn’t spreading and, therefore, that no isolation barrier is necessary. And residents like teenager Jonas Borchert and 44-year-old Michelle Seger are left to suffer with inoperable diseases.
Cammisa uses graphical maps to detail the spread of both the landfill’s subterranean conflagration and its radioactive material, and otherwise employs straightforward documentary aesthetics for Atomic Homefront’s many scenes of activist planning and meeting-hall confrontation. The result is an infuriating and heartbreaking snapshot of the way in which governmental bureaucracies—and the private corporations with whom they work—prioritize their own interests ahead of the public, even when, as in the case of Robbin and Mike Dailey, the insides of people’s homes turn out to be contaminated. And in the fight of Just Moms STL and their compatriots, the film also proves a moving portrait of the courage, and tenacity, of those St. Louis women and men fighting for their very lives.
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