Film focuses on fire, nuclear-waste dump


Weldon Spring, the downtown site, the Latty Avenue site, West Lake Landfill, Coldwater Creek: these are all terms used frequently in the documentary “The First Secret City,” which will be shown in the Anheuser-Busch Auditorium of the John Cook School of Business on Wednesday, April 20 at 7 p.m. And they are used frequently for good reason; it is at these sites that nuclear material and its waste have been produced and disposed of since the U.S. government hired St. Louis-based Mallinckrodt Company early in the 1940s to purify uranium for use in an atomic weapon – the weapon that would be used to bomb Japan during World War II. In fact, as filmmakers Alison Carrick and C.D. Stelzer – the makers of “The First Secret City” – say, since the 1940s, when the government first hired Mallinckrodt, the process of dealing with the waste from this purification of uranium – which Mallinckrodt did for the government until 1967 – has caused a great deal of environmental and human damage and has led to frustrating confrontations with the bureaucratic juggernaut of local and national politics.

As Carrick and Stelzer outlined in an interview with The University News, since the 1940s, the radioactive waste produced by Mallinckrodt during the period in which it purified uranium has been shuffled to various locations and has been illegally dumped in the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, Missouri, which was capped by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2008 and currently has an underground fire ravaging its space – a fire which Carrick and Stelzer say is approaching the nuclear waste that was dumped there. Indeed, they said, this is the story the film tells: how nuclear waste was produced in St. Louis, how it was moved around to many places – including Mallinckrodt’s downtown site and the residential areas near Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County – and how the various local governments and the federal government, both of who have a stake in its cleanup, have not acted.

“The reason we looked into this is because in every newspaper article … it would just say [that] it was illegally dumped, [and] it would use the passive voice,” Carrick said. “So we began to think, ‘Well, how could this happen? Who did this? Why weren’t they even fined?’ … And what we ended up finding out … our theory is that, because they were all these small little fiefdoms out there … and they were kind of looking the other way when their buddies did a bad thing, in this case dumping radioactive waste, [and] they didn’t get fined. They didn’t get punished. And we’re paying the consequences years later.”

“There appears to be a political unwillingness to deal with this issue, either on the cleanup side or on the whole issue itself – whether we should have nuclear power plants,” she added.

Carrick and Stelzer stressed the complexity of the issue. Mallinckrodt began processing the uranium before the war, and continued to do so for decades later, but after the company stopped purifying for the government, other companies swooped in to either assist in the disposal of the waste or claim it – as is the case for a mining company in the Belgian Congo, the original supplier of the uranium to the U.S. government. In this mire of agencies and companies, the radioactive waste from Mallinckrodt’s government work was bought and sold – shifting responsibility for it to different parties at different times – and it was dumped at sites throughout north St. Louis county – most notably near Lambert Airport and at a location on Latty Avenue in north St. Louis County, both of which are within the watershed zone for Coldwater Creek, a tributary that winds through residential areas.

“The radioactive waste was dumped at two locations next to this creek,” Selzer said. “And of course the stuff doesn’t stay in place – the wind blows it, rain falls, it erodes, the surface water drains it into the watershed, it goes into the ground water and … disperses that way – so it’s moving around in the environment multiple different ways … so the radioactive waste has been found to have contaminated areas several miles downstream from both the Latty Avenue and airport site.”

The fire at West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton, MO, is another important – and pressing – problem presented by the nuclear waste, and it affects many people living and working nearby, the filmmakers articulated. This is true for Dr. Vincent Casaregola, professor of English and director of the Film Studies Program at SLU, who worked to organize the showing of the film at the University.

“The landfill, where nuclear waste has been mixed with other materials, has gone through the hands of different companies and no one seems to take responsibility for it,” he said in an email. “A fire has been burning within the landfill for some time, and should that fire reach the nuclear waste, it is possible that the results of combustion that might emerge from the landfill (gases and particulates) could spread radioactive contaminants into the air and the water in the St. Louis area and beyond.  This is a crisis that we all face now–it is in everyone’s backyard.”

“On a personal note, my wife works for the Special School District as a Speech-Language Pathologist, and she is assigned to Pattonville High School, which is only a short distance from the landfill.  Every day she tells me of odors and fumes from the landfill, and she fears for her health and the health of her students and colleagues.  This is not just a public policy issue for me, but a personal one,” he also stated.

The film seeks to tell these stories – the communal and the personal. It features people from all of the affected areas in north St. Louis County and takes the viewer on a “road trip,” as Stelzer put it. In doing this, Carrick and Stelzer sought to create a story that both describes the past and stresses the implications of the present problem.

“I think with the film, what we wanted to do … was make it be like a mystery, be like a story, and kind of draw people in,” Carrick said. “… and I know there’s no way to sugarcoat it in the end – it’s not a cheerful subject – but I think we really did try to approach it like a story, like a mystery, and [we] ask those questions, ‘Why did this happen? How could this happen? What’s going on now?’ And I think that there are so many interesting personalities within the film, that I think that takes the edge off [of it] … we needed to create a narrative engine that would bring people in and not turn them off because it’s too depressing.”

Indeed, Carrick and Stelzer see the need for this “narrative engine”; they lamented the lack of media coverage the issue has garnered, and they iterated that the dilemma of radioactive waste in the St. Louis area is not one to be dismissed. It is a real health problem, they said, and action is required. Casaregola echoed this sentiment.

“St. Louis is now facing a critical environmental problem that could, any day, expand to be a local and regional environmental crisis,” he said. “As an institution committed to a mission of service to others, with a strong commitment in health sciences, environmental sciences and environmental law, SLU is able to respond to these issues with both moral authority and professional expertise.  I think that, especially during the week in which we celebrate Earth Day, we need to be raising awareness of such issues and calling for both immediate and sustained action.”

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