Atomic Homefront: The feel-bad movie of the year

The director of Atomic Homefront calls her documentary “the feel-bad movie of the year.” That’s how Rebecca Camissa described it at a special advance showing last night in St. Louis, and she wasn’t kidding. The movie chronicles the sad and infuriating story of people who live near the Bridgeton West Lake Landfill in a northern St. Louis suburb, where, underground, a smoldering garbage fire is metastasizing, creeping ominously close to radioactive waste dumped nearby in the 1970s and 80s.

It’s a difficult story to tell for several reasons. First, to understand the current situation, you have to delve into a complicated history that starts in the 1940s, when a St. Louis chemical company was commissioned to dispose of radioactive waste generated by the creation of the atomic bomb. The waste was transported [often in open, spewing truck beds] and dumped in several locations, mixed with soil, then dug up and moved again. The routes and the amounts were kept secret for many years. It was only decades later, when a local resident began to realize that many of her school classmates, who lived in areas near the landfill, had developed cancer, that people in the area began to wonder what was going on.

In addition, the personal stories of cancer victims make this an emotionally difficult film. Several people featured in the film’s most poignant scenes have subsequently died, and others are still mourning friends and family. They contend that the cancer and the presence of radioactive waste—not just in the landfill but also in Coldwater Creek, where many children played [and still do]—are linked. It is very tough to watch, but a necessary piece of the narrative.

Atomic Homefront also arouses anger. The film follows a group of concerned citizens, known as Just Moms STL. Spurred to action by the problem in their own neighborhood, they juggle family responsibilities with strategy sessions, activist training, community forums and meetings with government officials. In one segment, we see Dawn Chapman, one of the initiators of Just Moms STL, sweeping her kitchen floor while talking on the phone with a state legislator. It is an authentic, un-glamorous, un-staged, everyday moment in the life of someone who never envisioned herself as an activist. [The contrast with filmmaker Michael Moore’s phony, ambush encounters in his films is stark.]

It’s the meetings with government officials that really make your blood boil. Time after time, officials from agencies, ostensibly charged with protecting the environment,deny that a problem exists, make excuses, offer empty promises and become suddenly unavailable when Just Moms STL leaders show up at their offices.

We see several situations in which officials deliver, with a straight face, absurd statements that are totally divorced from reality. One representative of the US Environmental Protection Agency presents what he calls “a simplified equation of the effects of radiation,” which, when displayed, turns out to be anything but simple, prompting derisive laughter from the audience. In another instance, an EPA official says that the landfill is safe, and that the fire will “self-extinguish.” A representative of the US Army Corps of Engineers states that the agency doesn’t think it is necessary to put up health-warning signs along Coldwater Creek. A manager of the smoldering, acrid-smelling landfill tells a Just Moms activist that the stench is “landfill perfume.”

The film also captures the powerful moment when community residents, previously unaware of the smoldering landfill and the nearby radioactive waste, receive notices from the local school district about a newly created emergency plan, which would be activated “in case of a radioactive event at the landfill.” Taken completely by surprise, they justifiably fear for their children and turn out in droves to a hastily convened community meeting. In one jaw-dropping scene from the meeting, a woman addresses the crowd, demanding action as she reveals that she moved to the area 20 years earlier—from Chernobyl—to save her children, only to find out that she is now living in another highly toxic neighborhood.

Atomic Homefront creates an admirable balance among four key aspects of the Bridgeton Landfill story: history, human impact, local activism, and government response. I found a few stylistic choices to quibble about: It spends a bit too much time on mood-setting; it includes too much un-narrated and visually unappealing exposition. But I applaud the director’s effort to tackle this complex subject and to get it right for the people who have worked so hard to get justice and push for a remedy.

Unfortunately, you can’t leave this film feeling much hope. In the credits, Camissa offers a list of too many elected officials and agency representatives who did not agree to appear in the film. Their absence is a sad commentary on government responsiveness. And keep in mind that the film ends in November 2016, just after the election of Donald Trump. If you think the Obama-era officials who stonewalled and delayed action during the three years covered in this film were bad, remember that the new head of EPA is Scott Pruitt, an avowed anti-environmental zealot who is dismantling the agency’s mission as you read this article. You can’t help but feel bad for Dawn Chapman, Just Moms STL, and the people living in the neighborhood.

[Atomic Homefront received funding from HBO and is scheduled to appear on that network later in 2017 or early in 2018.]