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Missouri elementary school to close over radioactive waste on campus

A Missouri elementary school will be shuttered after high levels of radioactive waste were discovered on the campus, which sits next to a site where nuclear weapons were produced during World War II, school officials said Tuesday.

Radioactive contamination was detected in classrooms, the playground and elsewhere at Jana Elementary School, in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant, according to a report last week by Boston Chemical Data Corp., which was funded by law firms litigating a class-action lawsuit.

The report cited levels of radioactive isotope lead-210 that were 22 times the expected level on the kindergarten playground. It also found high levels of polonium, radium and other material in various places throughout the school.

A separate study by the US Army Corps of Engineers, made public in the summer, found contamination stemming from World War II-era nuclear weapons production for the Manhattan Project in a wooded area near Coldwater Creek.

Jana Elementary School, which is in the Hazelwood School District in Missouri, will be closed next Monday to be cleaned up.
Some 100 people attend a school board meeting Tuesday, during which the school closure was announced.
Some 100 people attended a school board meeting Tuesday, during which the school closure was announced.

The Hazelwood Board of Education voted in a closed session Tuesday to close the school until it can be cleaned up. Virtual learning will start Monday and is planned until the students can be moved to different schools, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 28.

No timetable was given for Jana Elementary’s reopening.

The school board said in a statement that closing the school was a necessary measure but acknowledged that “this is causing a disruption to our students’ education and school climate.”

The decision came even as a Corps official raised questions about the Boston Chemical study.

Phillip Moser, program manager of the Corps’ Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program in St. Louis, said the agency’s evaluations found no contamination between the wooded site and the school or its playground.

Jana Elementary
Jana Elementary, which opened in the 1970s, was found to have levels of radioactive isotope lead-210 that were 22 times the expected level on the kindergarten playground.

He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was “appalled” by the Boston Chemical report, which he slammed as “incomplete and not consistent with the approved processes required to do an evaluation at one of our sites.”

Moser even said that he would have no problem sending his own children to Jana Elementary.

Still, several politicians demanded immediate closure and cleanup of the school.

The new report worried parents, especially since the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry stated 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.

Patrice Strickland
“We don’t blame you all, but we want to hear what’s going on because these are our babies,” said Patrice Strickland, who has children at the school.

“I do not 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.

Many speakers at the meeting welcomed the shutdown of the school, but complained that they first heard about the contamination on the news or on Facebook.

“I’m happy that you have a plan now,” said Patrice Strickland, who has two children at the school. “I’m so happy you’re considering 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 made its way into the 19-mile-long waterway that flows into the Missouri River.

The school near Coldwater Creek
The school sits next to Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated by the production of nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project during World War II.

The Environmental Protection Agency designated the creek as a Superfund site in 1989. Remediation efforts — digging up contaminated dirt and taking it by covered rail car to a waste management facility in Idaho — aren’t expected to be complete until 2038.

Jana Elementary opened in the 1970s and has educated thousands of children, said Christen Commuso of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. About 80% of the school’s 400 students are black.

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

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