The First Secret City

A knock at my door woke me up before 8 a.m. one morning in June 2013. When I peeped out the window, the two men on my front porch struck me as being Mormons at first glance. I soon found out, however, that the neatly dressed pair were not concerned about my salvation but whether I was a terrorist.

The FBI agents departed my apartment a half hour later, after I debriefed them on the subject of my documentary and assured them that my activities were not intent upon disturbing domestic tranquility. My cooperation with federal law enforcement included naming my collaborator, the co-director of this film. So in a very real sense, I am an FBI informant.

The G-men had been dispatched to my doorstep by the Department of Homeland Security, after my license plate number had been turned over by a security guard at the Mallinckrodt Chemical plant on North Broadway in St. Louis. The security guard had stopped us on a public street on a Sunday morning, wanting to know why we were photographing the facility. He told us then that our names would be provided to Homeland Security, but I had dismissed the warning as an idle threat.

The agents were stern but polite. I did most of the talking, filling the silence in my living room with pleas of innocence. They wanted to know if I had any terrorists intentions. I told them we were making a documentary on the nuclear waste that Mallinckrodt had created as a part of the Manhattan Project and the subsequent Cold War.

The agents seemed surprised. They said they were unaware of the issue.

They are not alone.

In the 70-plus years since Mallinckrodt first began generating radioactive waste as a byproduct of its government-sponsored uranium processing work, a majority of St. Louisans have remained uninformed about the contamination that continues to threaten their health and the environment.

As a reporter for the Riverfront Times in St. Louis, I had covered the issue decades earlier, beginning in the early 1990s. I became reintroduced to the subject in 2008 when my editor at Illinois Times in Springfield sent me a thick press packet that had been sent to the newspaper. The contents of the manila envelope had been assembled by Larry Burgan, a former steelworker from Granite City, Ill. who had been exposed to radioactive contamination in his former work place. Burgan had started a one-man campaign to shed light on the problem that impacted not only his fellow workers but nearby residents of the plant in Venice, Ill. where had worked.

Months went by before I started going over the materials Burgan had painstaking collated. After reading it, I called him and asked for an interview. I then wrote a story based on Burgan’s research for an online magazine FOCUS/midwest in May 2009 and did a follow-up that September. But unlike hundreds of other stories I had written in my journalism career, I didn’t let this one go. I began investigating the subject further myself.

In early 2010, I enlisted the support of a local videographer and started working on a film on this subject. That project ended more than two years later because of a disagreement over the content and direction of the film. Countless hours of hard work was lost as a result.

In late 2012, my original idea was revived with with the help of my new partner Alison Carrick, the co-director and cinematographer of The First Secret City. Without her hard work and devotion to this project the film would have never been completed. Her understanding of the issue and the narrative form combined with a keen eye and an uncompromising dedication to the creative process can be seen and felt in every frame of this film.

The title is based on the little-known-about role that St. Louis played in the making of the first atomic bomb. Before the creation of the secret cities of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford, the Manhattan Project hired the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works of St. Louis to refine the first uranium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. For the next two decades, Mallinckrodt continued its classified work for the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. The resulting radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area some of which have not been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II. Told through the eyes of an overexposed worker, the story expands through a series of interviews that careen down a toxic pathway leading to a fiery terminus at a smoldering, radioactively-contaminated  landfill. The First Secret City reveals a forgotten history and its continuing impact on the community in the 21st Century, uncovering past wrongdoing and documenting the renewed struggles to confront the issue.

–C.D. Stelzer