by Caitlin Zera February 22, 2016
With The Safe Side of the Fence, a feature-length documentary about the Manhattan Project’s nuclear waste legacy in the St. Louis area, local filmmaker Tony West captures the long, treacherous history of radioactivity in the region and holds up nuclear waste as one of today’s most prominent and pressing issues nationwide.
The Safe Side of the Fence
Directed by Tony West
Runtime: 1 hour, 48 minutes, 2015
The atomic history of the United States is one deeply rooted in secrecy and one that remains shrouded in mystery. The Safe Side of the Fence looks at the origins of nuclear waste in the St. Louis area beginning with Mallinckrodt Chemical Company’s initial work refining uranium with the Manhattan Project. The film is an overview of nuclear wastes in the region but connects specific sites like West Lake Landfill, Coldwater Creek and Weldon Spring to give viewers a bigger picture perspective. This is an important perspective because the radioactive contamination is extensive, geographically and otherwise, disrupting the lives of many workers, their families, and residents across the area with illness from radiation exposure.
The backbone of the film, emotionally and structurally, is the personal story of Denise Brock, whose father worked at Mallinckrodt and died after a long battle with various cancers. In seeking compensation for her mother through a federal law meant to help nuclear weapons workers who had been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation and their survivors, Brock found herself challenging the law and working on behalf of many more workers and their families to make the process of claiming compensation easier.
In following Brock’s story, the documentary is able to reveal the immense personal burden shouldered by nuclear workers and their families in a way that is sensitive and poignant. It also illuminates the complexities of the legislation and the process of claiming compensation. What would be a complicated and jargon-heavy legal document suddenly becomes a personal account of injustice and the desire to right historical wrongs.
Most importantly, the story of Brock and her family articulates a main tenet in continuing the discussion about the atomic history of the United States: those suffering most from the toxic consequences of the military-industrial complex are often workers. The workers at Mallinckrodt, like workers all over the country who were employed by companies contracted under the Manhattan Project, were never informed of the risks and dangers associated with refining uranium. They were not adequately protected from toxic radiation during their years working at the facility, and they were not cared for in the years of illness following their retirements.
Tony Mazzocchi, who was a leader in connecting the environmental and labor movements, asserted that health and safety begins in the factories and that workers must be protected because their health is an indicator for the whole community. If a worker is sickened by toxic chemicals, it means the general community is also susceptible, and we might want to take a closer look at just how safe we feel these chemicals and their wastes are.
The Safe Side of the Fence is a testament to this vision of health and safety. It is a call for us to recognize injustice in personal way. The film is about St. Louis so it of course hits home (one may see familiar faces in the host of local activists on the screen, including MCE’s own former executive director Kat Logan Smith). But our care for this issue should extend beyond our region, and the film makes an effort to fit our regional story into a larger picture of nuclear issues nationwide.
Beneath all of the historical facts, personal accounts, and government documents presented in the film, there is a constant sense of urgency. In watching the film, one can see all the pieces of this nuclear puzzle coming together but there remains a nagging feeling that there are still more pieces yet to uncover and more stories that are going untold. What is clear from The Safe Side of the Fence is that the history of nuclear issues in St. Louis is ongoing and much of the story has yet to be written.
The Safe Side of the Fence is a substantial documentary. Its subject matter and the depth of coverage not only justifies the nearly two hour run time but solidly demonstrates how much more time we as a society need to devote to confronting this history, in hope that we can move forward and protect our workers and our communities.
The Safe Side of the Fence won Best Documentary and Best Director at the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase in 2015.
You can see The Safe Side of the Fence for free on Tuesday February 23rd at 7pm as part of the Ferguson Eco Team’s monthly film series. The film will screen at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church Parish Hall (33 N. Clay) in Ferguson, MO, and will be followed by a discussion. The event is open to the public.