It’s not the only example of the mess left behind from nuclear weapons production in the St. Louis region, but a burning Bridgeton landfill next to radioactive waste is perhaps the most sensational.
It has drawn national media attention and regularly captures local headlines. Two documentaries cover the issue, and another is reportedly in the works.
But before the Bridgeton Landfill caught fire, local freelance reporter C.D. Stelzer was already working on one of those documentaries. There’s more to the story than a smoldering dump, even if it wasn’t garnering the same attention.
Teaming up with filmmaker Alison Carrick, the pair’s new documentary, “The First Secret City,” tells the story of a region that appears to still be learning about a nuclear legacy that stretches back to the Manhattan Project. The movie is screening this weekend at the St. Louis International Film Festival.
From Mallinckrodt’s north riverfront factories to Dow Chemical across the Mississippi to Weldon Spring and Coldwater Creek, Stelzer and Carrick follow the trail of contamination left behind from processing radioactive minerals used in the country’s first nuclear weapons.
“Why isn’t this part of our memory or cultural history?” Carrick said. “We wanted the city, or the region, to be more of a character as well.”
“The First Secret City” takes its title from the nickname given to Oak Ridge, Tenn., the headquarters of the Manhattan Project that created the first atom bombs during World War II. Much of the uranium that would power those early bombs was purified in St. Louis at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works north of downtown.
Yet many St. Louisans seem to still know little about this history, and they’re finding out as they read of radioactive contamination in the West Lake Landfill in Bridgeton and in Coldwater Creek in Florissant and Hazelwood. Carrick and Stelzer add their lens to the coverage of the ordinary people pleading with the government to clean up sites exposed to radioactive material.
Stelzer said he’s always wondered why the region’s role in the early nuclear weapons buildup wasn’t more publicized. “It’s still a secret city,” he says.
Stelzer began working on the film some five years ago, drawn by the story of workers in Madison, Ill., who say they were exposed to radioactive contamination left behind in a former Dow Chemical factory. Neither he nor Carrick, who came on board soon thereafter, knew the story would lead to the radioactive remnants in the West Lake Landfill, which has drawn much of the media attention since a nearby landfill began burning five years ago.
Stelzer hopes he and Carrick can offer the kind of insight only locals can.
“Because we’re from here, I think we have a better understanding of the area in general, the history, politics of the area,” Stelzer said.
St. Louis’ role as one of the birthplaces of the atomic age, and the movement to clean it up, will surely be retold by those who know little else of the region. But even for a couple of longtime residents, the part St. Louis played in building the country’s nuclear arsenal, and the still unfinished cleanup, came as a surprise.
“I hope that people realize there are stories in their own backyard,” Carrick said. “We tend to think interesting stories happen in a faraway place.”
What “The First Secret City” • When Screens at noon Sunday • Where The Tivoli Theatre, 6350 Delmar Boulevard • Run time 2:03 • Details Directors Alison Carrick and C.D. Stelzer will be at the screening