New documentary explores St. Louis' connection to nuclear waste contamination

Jul 14, 2015

Tony West
Credit Alex Heuer

During World War II, a St. Louis-based company took on a project that turned out to be detrimental to the health of its employees.

Mallinckrodt Chemical Company was responsible for refining massive amounts of uranium for the Manhattan Project. As a result, some of Mallinckrodt’s employees succumbed to various illnesses caused by exposure to nuclear waste.

The radioactive work completed decades ago continues to have impacts on people and the environment at several sites throughout the area, including West Lake Landfill, Coldwater Creek, and Weldon Spring. Weldon Spring has since been cleaned up, but concern remains on the effects of contamination prior to the area being cleared.

Filmmaker and St. Louis native Tony West directed a documentary about the Manhattan Project titled “The Safe Side of the Fence.” The film explores first-hand accounts of former employees of Mallinckrodt and residents who live near the contaminated sites. At 1 p.m. on July 19, the Tivoli Theatre will screen the documentary as part of Cinema St. Louis’ Filmmakers Showcase.

“I started off focusing on the workers because these are people who worked in contaminated buildings day in and day out,” West said. “When you see this film and what these workers are going through, you’ll get a sense of what you’re up against.”

West said his goal in making the film was not to shed bad light on the St. Louis area, but to show problems that exist across the country with contaminated waste from the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The film does not feature current representatives from the accused companies, but various documents from employees of the Manhattan Project during that time are shown throughout.

“I basically have a lot of documents from representatives from that era, and I just put that on the screen,” West explained. “I try to keep everything first-hand, if it was a worker or a representative’s document that they might have written at the time. I think it’s pretty fair because I try to stick to the facts of what actually happened.”

Although there’s coverage of contamination at West Lake Landfill, Coldwater Creek and Weldon Spring, West said he wanted to make a film to tie the three sites together.

“The government is not in a hurry to spend a lot of money on anything, especially cleaning up things,” West said. “I think that if you live by this material or you’ve got a family member that worked in one of these plants, this really hits home for you.”

The Safe Side of The Fence from Tony West on Vimeo.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.