Missouri school closes after radioactive waste reports

FLORISSANT, Mo. (AP) – A Missouri school board decided Tuesday to close an elementary school near a contaminated creek after a study funded by law firms involved in a class-action lawsuit found high levels of radioactive material at the school.

Contamination was in classrooms, a playground and elsewhere at Jana Elementary School in Florissant, Missouri, according to a Boston Chemical Data Corp. report last week. It follows another study by the US Army Corps of Engineers, released this summer, that found contamination from World War II-era nuclear weapons production in a wooded area near Coldwater Creek.

The Hazelwood Board of Education voted in closed session Tuesday to close the school until it can be cleaned. Virtual learning will begin on Monday and is planned until the transfer of students to different schools, tentatively scheduled for November 28. It is not clear when Jana Primary School will reopen.

The school board, in a statement after a closed-door meeting, said the remediation was necessary, but acknowledged that “this is causing a disruption in the education of our students and the school climate.”

The decision came even as a Corps official raised questions about the Boston Chemical Study. Phillip Moser, program manager of the Corps’ remediation program at previously used sites in St. Louis, said the agency’s assessments found no contamination between the wooded site and the school or its playground. He called Boston Chemical’s report “incomplete and inconsistent with the approved processes required for an assessment at one of our sites.”

However, several politicians have called for the immediate closure of the school.

The new report has parents worried, especially since the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in 2019 that people exposed to Coldwater Creek from the 1960s to the 1990s may have an increased risk of bone cancer, lung cancer and leukemia.

“I don’t understand why it’s not closed now,” William Johnson, the father of a current student at the school and three others who went there, told the board.

It was not immediately clear whether the students would continue in school for the rest of the week. District spokeswoman Jordyn Elston said she had no information about the rest of the week.

Many speakers at the meeting welcomed the school’s closure, but questioned why the school district didn’t communicate about the problem. Some said they first heard about it on the news or on Facebook.

“I’m happy you have a plan now,” said Patrice Strickland, who has two children at the school. “I’m so happy you’re thinking about our babies now. But just communicate with us.”

Nuclear waste from World War II weapons production as part of the Manhattan Project contaminated Coldwater Creek. Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. processed uranium ore in St. Louis from 1942 to 1957 and shipped waste to a site near Lambert Airport, where it entered a 19-mile waterway that empties into the Missouri River.

The Environmental Protection Agency designated the creek as a Superfund site in 1989. The remediation effort — excavating the contaminated dirt and hauling it by covered wagon to a waste management facility in Idaho — is not expected to be complete until 2038.

Dawn Chapman, co-founder of Just Moms STL, an environmental group that advocated for the Coldwater Creek cleanup, acknowledged the difficulty of linking the disease to the contamination. But Chapman said the new report — funded by two law firms seeking compensation for illnesses and deaths allegedly caused by the creek’s contamination — has raised concerns among current and former parents, teachers and staff.

“Everybody’s just terrified,” Chapman said.

A Boston Chemical study cited levels of the radioactive isotope lead-210 that were 22 times higher than expected levels on a kindergarten playground. He also found high levels of polonium, radium and other materials in various places in the school.

Mahadevappa Mahesh, chief physicist at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine teaching hospital in Baltimore, called the data “disturbing,” but said he needed more information to draw firm conclusions about potential health effects.

“The psychological impact is greater even than the actual physical injury,” said Mahesh, also a professor of radiology. “Now that students and parents know these things, it can have a lot more of a psychological impact — radiation anxiety — more than actual radiation injury.”

The school — located in a subdivision surrounded by homes — opened in the 1970s and has educated thousands of children, said Christen Commuso of the Missouri Environmental Coalition. While the area along Coldwater Creek is racially mixed, about 80% of Jana Elementary School’s 400 students are black.

“You’re talking about kids who have been exposed to this for decades.” Commuso said.

Ultimately, Ashley Bernaugh wants her son to go back to school. Bernaugh is president of the Jana Elementary School Parent-Teacher Association.

“We love Jana Elementary,” Bernaugh said. “I’ll go down fighting for it.”


AP reporter John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas contributed to this report.

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