A Missouri elementary school located near a contaminated creek in St. Louis County has closed after a private study found high levels of radioactive waste inside the building and its playground area.
The Hazelwood School District announced this week that Jana Elementary School in Florissant will pivot to virtual learning while school officials work on transferring students to different schools in the district in the coming weeks.
"The Hazelwood School District Board of Education will be working with our legal counsel to communicate to the appropriate agencies responsible, the necessity to immediately clean up and remediate any and all hazardous waste at Jana Elementary and any other District sites," the school district said in a statement Wednesday.
The closure follows years of requests for testing. The school is located near Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated with uranium and other radioactive waste from a World War II nuclear weapons program, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The school district warned parents in August, weeks before the start of the school year, about potential risks and possible disruptions after U.S. Army Corps of Engineer testing found radioactive contamination on the banks of the creek, at the edge of the school's property.
The latest findings, from Boston Chemical Data Corp., have sparked calls for cleanup from parents and officials and concerns about potential exposure, while families also figure out next steps.
Creek's history of contamination
Coldwater Creek, a 19-mile tributary of the Missouri River, passes near sites that were used in the development of nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project, including radioactive waste storage piles.
The creek is contaminated with "uranium processing residues" that were improperly stored near it, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which in 2019 released a public health assessment report that found an increased risk of certain cancers for residents who "regularly played or lived along the creek for many years in the past."
Jana Elementary sits on the flood plain of Coldwater Creek. The Corps, which is charged with the creek's remediation, first detected radioactive contaminants near the school in 2018 and again in 2019, 2020 and 2021, according to the Boston Chemical Data Corp. report.
Following the latest testing, the Corps notified school officials in January that soil sampling conducted on the school's property "showed the presence of low-level radioactive contamination" on the banks of Coldwater Creek, the Hazelwood School District said in an Aug. 5 letter to the school community.
"They further informed the district that the contamination did not pose an immediate risk to human health or the environment because the contamination was below ground surface," the letter stated.
The school district gave parents the option for virtual learning while it awaited the results of further testing.
Latest testing sparks closure
The decision to close the school comes a week after the release of the Boston Chemical Data Corp. report, which found radioactive waste in the school and its playground. The report was funded by law firms involved in a class action lawsuit alleging illnesses and deaths caused by the creek contamination.
The school district granted the request for the testing, which was conducted in August, according to the Jana Elementary PTA, which alerted families to the report's findings on Oct. 14.
Testing of dust and soil samples indicated high levels of radioactive lead in the school, including the library, and playground, according to the report. The levels in the kindergarten play area were "22 times the expected background," according to the report.
"The most outstanding result of August 2022 testing at the Jana School was that levels of the radioactive isotope lead-210 found on school grounds were entirely unacceptable," the report stated.
The Corps has not corroborated the findings of the private report.
In a statement Tuesday, the Corps' Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program for the St. Louis District said the school property has contamination that is "isolated" to the creek bank, and that sample locations in the floodplain between the bank and playground area "aren't contaminated."
"The team will evaluate the report that Boston Chemical Data Corp. compiled on Jana Elementary School and the methods used to create these results," it said in a news release. "That report isn't consistent with FUSRAP's accepted evaluation techniques and must be thoroughly vetted to ensure accuracy."
Calls for cleanup, answers
Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley has called on the Corps to review the findings of the independent report, conduct further testing on the school grounds and publicly report their findings.
"It should go without saying that hazardous, radioactive contamination has no place in schools, or anywhere near schools, or anywhere near any place where children are. And it should also go without saying the federal government must be honest and transparent about the facts," Hawley wrote in a letter to Corps Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon on Tuesday.
The senator has also urged President Joe Biden to declare a federal emergency and authorize "immediate relief" for all impacted families and to expedite the cleanup.
Missouri Rep. Cori Bush has also demanded an "urgent response" to the emergency.
"The federal government is responsible for this waste, and we need answers from them on their plan to immediately begin cleanup of Jana Elementary and the surrounding areas so our kids' health and education is not further disrupted by the presence of toxic chemicals," she said in a statement earlier this week. "Inaction is not an option. The safety of our children and our communities must come first."
The Missouri Coalition for the Environment has called on the school district to "act swiftly to secure a comprehensive cleanup of all radioactive bomb waste at the school."
"In the interim, they must provide parents with options to continue students' education with minimal disruption," the group said. "We are approaching 80 years since this nuclear bomb waste has been allowed to plague our neighborhoods."
What's next for frustrated, worried families
Some 400 students attend Jana Elementary. Amid the remediation, the school will transition to virtual learning starting on Monday, with plans to redistrict students into other schools by Nov. 28 "if feasible," the school district said.
Two pre-K classrooms will be transferred to another elementary school to continue in-person learning.
"We recognize that you are being faced with a situation not created by anyone in this District, over which you have no control, and that this is causing a disruption to our students' education and school climate. For that we sincerely apologize," the school district said in a statement to families. "Please know that Hazelwood School District will work hand-in-hand with you to provide the support that is needed as we transition through these very difficult times."
Families are now scrambling to figure out next steps. During a packed meeting with the Hazelwood School Board on Tuesday, parents expressed frustration with the district.
"Just communicate with us," said Patrice Strickland, who said she has two children who have been attending school virtually since August after learning about the contamination. "We don't blame you all, but we want to hear what's going on because these are our babies.
"Help us to make the right decisions for us, and we can't make the right decisions if we don't know what is going on," she continued.
Former students and families of students who now attend the school also expressed concerns for their health during the meeting.
Kimberly Anderson told the board she had bloodwork done for her three grandchildren who attend the school to test their lead levels.
"This can cause long-term effects with children," she said.
Others want to find a way to keep the community intact amid redistricting plans.
"Our kids should not be strung out through the district unless there was absolutely nothing suitable," Jana Elementary PTA president Ashley Bernaugh said. "You cannot tear our community apart to punish us for something that our kids have no burden for."