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You Can’t Keep Quiet Anymore: Atomic Homefront via Film International

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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.

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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.

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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.

Read more at You Can’t Keep Quiet Anymore: Atomic Homefront 

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