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Examining the Impact of Nuclear Waste with 'Atomic Homefront'
February 12, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Think of HBO’s Atomic Homefront as Erin Brockovich without the happy ending.

Atomic Homefront, which premieres Monday at 8 p.m. ET, doesn’t have an ending at all, really, except maybe for the two young people in the film who die of cancer shortly after director Rebecca Cammisa’s crew talks with them.

Shot over several years, Atomic Homefront follows the efforts of homeowners in a northern St. Louis neighborhood to get answers about and action on the radioactive contamination emanating from a massive landfill that sits way too close to their properties.

As evidence piles in that the contamination extends to backyards and basements, the homeowners grow increasingly frustrated and government agencies like the EPA increasingly defensive.

Atomic Homefront comes to this story, unapologetically, from the conviction that government agencies on all levels, run by both parties, are trying to dance away from an increasingly clear responsibility to either clean this stuff up or move the homeowners out.

Accordingly, Cammisa’s film simmers with anger, to the point of calling out every public official and agency that refused to grant interviews.

Cammisa’s two-pronged argument for urgency goes like this: Data seem to strongly suggest an abnormally high incidence of cancer among people living in this area, while at the same time an underground fire in one part of the landfill may be moving toward the area where radioactive waste is buried.

Should the fire reach the radioactive waste, frightening amounts of toxic material could be carried into local neighborhoods from smoke, fumes and wind.

We see an EPA official promise a neighborhood meeting in 2016 that the agency knows about the potential fire danger and has put in an urgent order for a barrier between the fire and the radioactive waste. A coda to the film says that so far, nothing has been done.

Republic, owners of the landfill, call the fire neither a danger nor an issue. They’re monitoring the situation, they say, and not to worry.  

This whole story begins in 1942, when the federal government gave a St. Louis company named Mallinckrodt the contract to process superstrong uranium imported from the then-Belgian Congo.

This was top priority and top secret, since the U.S. and its allies were racing Germany to build an atomic bomb, the superweapon that could determine the outcome of the war.

America won that race, but with some consequences, including the question of what to do with 70,000 tons of nuclear waste that was still worryingly radioactive.

After a couple of quiet transactions, much of it ended up in this northern St. Louis landfill. But one of the several problems is that it wasn’t immediately buried and walled off. It was left in open piles of dirt, which rainstorms washed into nearby Coldwater Creek.

Children played and splashed in the creek for years before anyone realized that was happening, or that the creek was carrying this waste downstream and depositing it all along the banks and nearby fields and lawns.

Almost everyone interviewed for the film has family or friends who have died from cancers, often young. Several interviewees, including a woman named Dawn Chapman who has helped organize the community groups, say they just want out.

Trouble is, how much is a potentially contaminated house worth? Not much. So they can’t afford to move, which has led them to ask for a federal buyout like the one under which the government compensated homeowners to leave the notorious Love Canal area.

So far neither the Love Canal nor the Erin Brockovich model has kicked in.

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