The Residents of North St. Louis Are Still Fighting for Answers


Atomic Homefront exposes the illegal dumping of nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project throughout St. Louis’ North County, following the locals struggling to protect themselves from the resulting contamination. After the film was screened as part of the 2017 DOC NYC festival, director Rebecca Cammisa, editor Madeline Gavin, local mothers Dawn Chapman, Karen Nickel and Robbin Dailey, and Pattonville Fire Protection District Assistant Chief Matt LaVanchy spoke of the obstacles they continue to face. Here’s what was said:

On spreading awareness and having a filmmaker as an advocate:

Dawn Chapman: We respected Rebecca enough to let her in our homes — even when they were messy — and see us for what we are. We're truly just moms! The amount of time spent with Rebecca really made her a part of our family. Having them around as a support during some of the traumatic experiences Karen and I dealt with was invaluable.

Karen Nickel: Don't forget -- the damage here is a secret. People just don't know.

Matt LaVanchy: A retired firefighter asked me about buying a home in Spanish Village because in his words, "The property values here look like a heck of a deal." I had to be honest with him. I told him not to buy in our fire protection district. It was the hardest thing for me to say. I love my community, plus telling the truth lowers our tax revenue, and thus, our ability to help the people that need it. But there's no way in H-E-double-L that I would purchase here.

Robbin Dailey: There are two houses across the street from me: one for rent and one for sale. I get my butt out there every dang time I see someone looking to move there to warn them. I'll say something like "Hey! Are you looking for a house here? Do you know about the burning radioactive landfill? Haven't you heard the news reports?" They are never aware, the same way my husband and I weren't aware when we bought a home here. So, yes: Homes are still being sold and rented here. Know why? Because we're regular people with lives! Work and families. We don't have the time to research information the EPA doesn't want us to know! Who knew that someone would dump this crap on us and tell us, "It's okay! don't worry about it. Go on with your lives." It's a bunch of baloney. No, it's worse than that: It's a bunch of shit.

On the challenges of galvanizing government support:

Chapman: None of the elected officials even read the documents citing that the fire in our landfill is getting hotter. We have to stop at everything to get attention because no one else will. I mean, we're gonna have to find the one politician who will sit and listen to us and pore over fire data. We don't know who that is.

LaVanchy: We've contacted senators. We've gone as high as we can. The governor didn't want to get involved. He actually put a gag order on the Missouri Department of Natural Resources so they couldn't comment on it. It's so unfortunate that a company can put money towards shutting people up.

On remaining active even when little has changed:

LaVanchy: Every day this landfill isn't addressed puts someone at risk. Someone is gonna die. We, as firefighters, take an oath to protect our community. If it means we're risking our lives to protect the community, we're gonna do it every day. That's what we do.

Dailey: My husband and I are still living with 1000 picocuries of Thorium-230 [the substance poisoning their county.] We're waiting for our case to be heard through the federal court. But even still, I can't be quiet about what's happening. I will always speak my mind. I will always call out that do wrong when the right thing to do is in front of you.