FLORISSANT, Mo. – With the recent discovery of radioactive contamination at a St. Louis County school, one in-depth HBO documentary explored the topic of radioactive waste in the region several years ago.
“Atomic Homefront,” released in 2017, particularly focuses on two sites impacted by radioactive waste that stemmed from the production of nuclear weapons in the World War II-era: Coldwater Creek, which runs north from Overland to Spanish Lake, and the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton.
The film outlines how some residents around those sites have ended up with rare cancers, birth defects, and various autoimmune disorders that are potentially linked to ionizing radiation poisoning. That includes St. Louis area residents Jonas Borchert and Michelle Seger, both who died in the 2010s amid health battles.
“Different types of cancer could be associated with exposure from the site, but to really say for an individual that cancer was caused from the site would require a huge-dose reconstruction,” said Dr. R William Field, PhD, radiation epidemiologist and radon expert in the film. “It would easily be a $10-million study.”
“Atomic Homefront” crews followed an advocacy group called Just Moms STL from 2014 to 2016, as they confronted the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators, and corporations behind the illegal dumping of dangerous radioactive waste in their neighborhoods.
“If I build my home on nuclear weapons waste, what happens to my kids 30 years later?,” said Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, during a 2014 meeting with EPA officials, in the film. She adds later in the film, “My message to other moms who find themselves in a similar situation,” you have to be your own superhero.”
According to the film, Coldwater Creek picked up contamination over a period of several years when piles of radioactive waste were left along Latty Avenue near Florissant and entered the creek during heavy rains and floods. The EPA deemed the creek as a superfund site in 1989 and engineers have been working to clean up for more than 20 years, a process expected to take several decades before completion.
“If I had a dollar for every time I crossed that creek,” said one North St. Louis County resident before a long sigh in the film.
As for the West Lake Landfill, it’s estimated that 47,000 tons of that same radioactive waste was illegally dumped into the landfill in 1973. The EPA deemed the landfill as a superfund site in 1990 amid fears of a subsurface fire heading toward the buried landfill waste. Republic Services, which owns the site, agreed to pay $16 million in 2018 to settle a lawsuit filed in 2013, months after “Atomic Homefront” was released.
“If it wasn’t for the smell of the landfills, no one would have known about the radioactivity,” said another St. Louis-area resident in the film.
Nearly five years since the HBO documentary, the issue of radioactive contamination has taken on new life. A report recently from environmental investigation consultants recently pointed out radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary School in North St. Louis County.
Boston Chemical Data Corp. released the report. Funded by law firms involved in a class-action lawsuit, recently found high levels of radioactive material inside the school. Concerns about radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary increased after Coldwater Creek flooded back in July amid record-breaking rainfall in the St. Louis region.
In response, a team from the United States Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis is reviewing an independent report on radioactive contamination at the school. The agency says the way that Boston Chemical Data Corp. tested the school and creek samples was not under their same regulations. The team is planning to retest with its method to ensure accuracy of the radioactve waste.
Meanwhile, Jana Elementary School will close for several weeks as officials work to determine the next steps in response to the discovery.