UPDATE NOVEMBER 14: The story about Atomic Homefront, below, inadvertently gave the impression that local journalists, including those at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under-reported the disposal of radioactive waste in the northern suburbs of St. Louis, MO. The new film is indeed 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 the impact of the. And it does come at a time when coverage of local news around the country is endangered. The Post-Dispatch has reported on the dumping for several decades, however, and the impact of the uranium processing on workers in the plants built to support the creation of the atomic bomb was the subject of Tony West’s 2015 documentary, The Safe Side of the Fence.
EARLIER: The chilling documentary Atomic Homefront has been running in Los Angeles and will be shown next week at DOC NYC. That will be followed by a commercial run in Manhattan before going into rotation on HBO beginning in February. It’s literally a NIMBY story – Not In My Back Yard – in which the residents of Coldwater Creek and Bridgeton, suburbs of St. Louis, MO, discover the source of an epidemic of cancers and other diseases that has decimated their families.
Beginning in 1942, St. Louis was a processing center for the uranium used in the development of the atomic bomb. The federal government secretly dumped the radioactive refuse from that processing in landfill and lakes in the area, and nature did the rest, leeching the poison into the soil and water. As if that weren’t bad enough, an underground fire was making its way toward the radioactive junkyard, and no one was 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.”
And if you think this is an isolated incident, think again: as recently as last month, radioactivity from similar projects was discovered in the suburbs north of New York City.
Atomic Homefront is difficult to watch, as we hear testimony from families destroyed by disease, their property rendered worthless, as they listen to prevaricating and indifferent bureaucrats minimize the problem and try to buy time for their inactivity.
“I buried my 12-year-old daughter to a glioblastoma brain tumor,” we hear resident Kirbi Pemberton testify at a town hall meeting with government officials. Choking back tears, she adds, “I have three other children at home sick. And you want to live here? Because I can’t physically just bury another child.”
In fact, the film began as a different kind of project altogether, as I learned when I spoke with filmmaker Rebecca Cammisa and her co-producer on the project, a once-prominent Broadway producer named James Freydberg who now operates out of L.A. (Larissa Bills is the film’s third producer of record.)
As it happens, even the story behind the story couldn’t be timelier.
“It began three years ago, with Rebecca and myself researching an article about the death of local journalism, as so many newspapers shut down and others laid off reporters covering neighborhood stories,” Freydberg told me. “We decided to focus on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which had been a great paper.”
“The newsrooms we approached wanted the story, but the owners didn’t,” Cammisa said, in a separate interview in New York. “We decided that instead of newspapers, let’s find an underreported story and look at the paper in that area. A friend who’s a geologist made me aware of the situation in in St. Louis. That took us to this ball field and there was the EPA in moon gear, taking soil samples. It was a strange and obvious moment, when we realized, ‘God, there really is something here.”
Added Freydberg, “We just started driving around and got lost – and ended up in a public athletic field. The Environmental Protection Agency was there. Nobody knew about it, nobody was covering it. An underground fire was burning and heading toward this radioactive area. People were sold houses and never told about it.”
The film focuses on a group formed by local moms as they confront the government agencies that are slow to provide aid and the companies behind the illegal dumping of dangerous radioactive waste in their backyards.
“All my life I wanted to get into health issues and issues about our country,” Freydberg told me. “Social issues have been the thing for me since I was 16 years old. As theater became more and more expensive, you had to have 50 producers, and that was not my game. A really good producer is a midwife for an artist but also is an artist. This became a real commitment by both of us,” he said of his partnership on the project with Cammisa. “It’s easier to raise $25 million for a Broadway musical than $1.5 million for a documentary.
“We brought HBO a 20-minute version of the film and they said they want to do it,” Freydberg continued. “For the last three-and-a-half years, neither one of us has worked on anything else. I gave up everything to do this.”
Cammisa recalled being stonewalled by the EPA, learning about the science behind the story, the history of the Manhattan Project to develop the Bomb.
“The story itself became such a large issue,” she said. “We knew we had to move to St. Louis and live there, be there day to day.”
The day I spoke with Cammisa, a story appeared about a disintegrating storage facility for radioactive material in Mount Kisco, in northern Westchester County, New York.
“People had no idea, and they were shocked, she said. “This stuff is everywhere. There are commnities at risk that don’t know what to do. It is an absolute nightmare
The Wall Street Journal has a page called “Wasteland,” where they really dig in to how many radioactive sites there are around the country. Their data lists 517 sites around the country – that they know about.”
As for the issue that first animated Freydberg and Cammisa, that’s a crisis too. What Cammisa describes as a “desert” of local journalism struck New York just this past week, when a vindictive owner shut down a chain of micro-news sites covering New York neighborhoods because the staff had recently voted to unionize. The desert is now in our back yard, too.
Atomic Homefront will be shown in St. Louis tomorrow, November 11, as part of the the city’s International Film Festival. “But the film is a cautionary tale, not just for St. Louis,” Cammisa added. “It’s been a very emotional experience.”