MADISON — After spending years as a journalist, C.D. Stelzer is now a movie producer.
Stelzer produced a documentary called “The First Secret City,” which talks about how workers and residents at a former Dow chemical plant in Madison reportedly had been chronically exposed to radioactive contamination. The documentary will be shown at noon Sunday, Nov. 15, at the Tivoli in St. Louis.
“The documentary is about the exposure, the contamination and the health problems derived from the radiation process in the factories over in Illinois,” said Larry Burgan, the film’s narrator. “Everybody is aware of the radiation cases over Bridgeton and Westlake, but it’s little lesser-known on this (Illinois) side.”
The film will be shown a day before Stelzer’s 65th birthday.
“I don’t know if I have the energy to do another one,” Stelzer said. “I hope somebody else would pick the ball up and try to expose what’s going on because even with the additional coverage that it’s receiving now, it’s still not clear exactly what it’s in that landfill out in St. Louis County. It’s not necessarily clear what’s over on the East Side either. The EPA, the Illinois EPA and the other state and federal regulatory agencies need to step up and do something about this. They’ve been dragging their heels literally for decades and it’s unconscionable for this kind of public health threat to be in our midst and not be addressed.”
St. Louis-based independent filmmaker and writer Alison Carrick is the film’s co-director, cinematographer and editor. “The First Secret City” is Carrick’s first feature-length documentary.
“What you see on the screen, much of it is her work,” Stelzer said. “I, more or less, participated in this as the journalist, so I’m listed as the reporter. I did the interviews and I did much of the research. She did a couple of interviews, so it was a collaborative effort overall.”
Stelzer said he started working on the documentary five years ago.
“This is all self-funded,” Stelzer said. “We didn’t receive any outside finances. We’re not beholden to any other money interests. It’s money out of our own pockets as well as our own time. The reason we took all of the time and devoted all of our energy to do this was, at the time we started, an overlooked, but important issue that was affecting the health and the welfare of people in the bi-state region. So we thought it was worth our effort to try and expose what happened in the past that was impacting people now. That’s what we did it.”
The film explains how radioactive waste contaminated numerous locations in the St. Louis area and some of them haven’t been cleaned up 70 years after the end of World War II.
Stelzer said he wrote investigative pieces on the issue while working for an online magazine called FOCUS/Midwest.
“One was about Larry Burgan’s plant, where there was no question that it was contaminated because it was cleaned up by the United States Army Corps of Engineers partially in 2000,” Stelzer said. “But Larry wasn’t aware of the fact that he was working in a contaminated plant until after that. He had been working there since 1989. So then I did a follow-up story about the neighborhood because Larry took it upon himself not only to help his other workers and try to get them knowledgeable about this issue as well as compensated, but he also went to the neighborhood. There is a 40-acre tract of land behind the plant that was contaminated. In the beginning, it was a Dow Chemical Company plant.”
The plant was called Spectrulite Consortium, which was one of the low-priority radioactive sites nationwide identified by the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program in the 1990s. The plant was owned by the Dow Chemical Co. Dow processed uranium at the plant in the late 1950s and early 1960s under an agreement with Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. in St. Louis.
“The plant sits on the borderline between Venice and Madison, so both of those towns over there are impacted by it as well,” Stelzer said. “The issue has been overlooked or covered up since the very beginning.”
Stelzer worked as a contributing and full-time writer for the Riverfront Times from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. He first began reporting on nuclear waste in 1991.
Stelzer said he has mixed emotions about having his first feature-length documentary.
“We’re happy that it’s now receiving a lot of attention in the media and more people are becoming aware of it,” Stelzer said. “But at the same time, it’s really difficult to be too happy about it because this is such a dire situation. There are a lot of people whose lives have been affected negatively by this, obviously. So it’s kind of bittersweet.”