FLORISSANT — Following an independent report of radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary, the Hazelwood School District announced Tuesday night that the school will close and students will switch to virtual learning for the remainder of the current semester.
By January, coinciding with the second semester of the current school year, students will be transferred to different schools in the district, officials said.
“To the students, staff and parents of the Jana school community, we recognize that you are being faced with a situation not created by anyone in this room, and over which you have no control,” said School Board President Betsy Rachel, reading from prepared remarks. “This is causing a disruption to our student’s education and school environment, for that we sincerely apologize.”
The announcement came at a packed meeting, where many parents expressed concern about the potential health effects on students and called for greater transparency from school officials.
The decision followed calls by elected officials and others for swift action in response to the independent study.
In a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked the agency to “immediately” review the independent report, conduct further testing on its own and explain what actions the Corps and other agencies are taking.
“I emphasize that time is of the essence and delay is not acceptable,” Hawley wrote to Lt. Gen. Scott A. Spellmon. “Residents of this community have had to deal with uncertainty and changing facts for too long.”
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, called for an “immediate cleanup.”
“The federal government is responsible for this waste, and we need answers,” Bush said in a press release.
Last week, a report from an ongoing lawsuit was publicized, claiming radioactive waste was found at the school up to 22 times the expected level.
Samples taken Aug. 15 from Jana Elementary’s library, kitchen, HVAC system, classrooms, fields and playgrounds were found “far in excess of the natural background” of radioactive isotope lead-210, polonium, radium and other toxins, according to a Boston Chemical Data Corp. report, which was produced for an ongoing lawsuit.
The school, located at 405 Jana Drive and opened in 1972, sits in the flood plain of Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated by waste from the development of atomic weapons. Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. processed massive amounts of uranium ore on the Mississippi riverfront, north of downtown St. Louis, from 1942 to 1957. Tons of byproduct with residual radioactive material were shipped to a location on the northern border of the airport, next to Coldwater Creek, to be stored. It was later trucked about a mile away, to an industrial area in the 9200 block of Latty Avenue, which also borders Coldwater Creek.
The sources of contamination at the main storage sites have mainly been remediated. Now the ongoing, multimillion dollar focus of the Army Corps of Engineers has been testing so Coldwater Creek can finally be cleaned up. Before emptying in the Missouri River, the creek travels through Hazelwood, Florissant, Black Jack, unincorporated St. Louis County and a sliver of Berkeley.
The Corps said it found elevated samples along the creek near Jana Elementary but that that testing didn’t lead them to go closer or into the school.
In an interview Monday, Phillip Moser, St. Louis program manager of the Corps’ Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program, or FUSRAP, said he stood by the FUSRAP testing in the area and would have no problem sending his own children to school there. Moser said he was “appalled” by the Boston Chemical report and questioned its conclusions.
“This report could lead us to doing stuff, but we have to do an evaluation of the actual report itself,” he said.
Doubts about findings
Kim Visintine, who has has been following the Coldwater Creek story since before the U.S. government acknowledged there were radioactive contaminants from the Manhattan Project in the waterway, said Tuesday in a telephone interview that she also had doubts about the findings.
“It should be cleaned up as swiftly as possible,” Visintine, a nurse practitioner and co-founder of the group “Coldwater Creek — Just the Facts Please,” said of the contamination at Jana Elementary. “Making accusations about responsible parties when we don’t have the full story is not helping anyone. It just delays cleanup for everybody involved. You have to find out what’s causing this. Where did this waste come from?”
She said it’s not clear to her from the report that the contamination came from World War II-era waste, which is specifically funded for the remediation of Coldwater Creek.
In a Tuesday telephone interview, Marco Kaltofen, who wrote the report in question, said he stands by the findings.
“By far, the greatest part of the contamination we found comes from Manhattan Project waste,” he said.
On Tuesday night, more than 100 people showed up at the Hazelwood School Board meeting to voice their concerns. Several people thanked the school district for closing Jana, but voiced concern during the public comments session about transparency.
“We don’t blame you all, but we want to hear what’s going on because these are our babies,” Patrice Strickland told the board. She and her husband have two children at Jana who have been doing virtual learning since the district told parents in August that the school was being tested for radioactive contamination.
Officials said all Jana classes will be virtual starting Monday. They plan to have students in new schools starting Nov. 28 and no later than the beginning of the second semester.
“Right now, it feels like COVID all over again,” she told the Post-Dispatch.
Karen Nickel, of Just Moms STL, Rep. Doug Clemens, D-St. Ann and others told the board that there needs to be an emphasis on doing more testing and cleanup throughout north St. Louis County.
“They are dragging their feet cleaning it up,” Clemens, chairman of the Legacy Waste Caucus of the Missouri House, told the school board. “In this time of need, we need to stick together.”
The Jana Elementary property is one spot along 19 miles of Coldwater Creek.
Though federal public health officials previously called for additional testing inside North County homes, the Corps is focused on testing and remediating within the 10-year flood plain. Corps officials have said that nearly all the lingering contamination they have found is bound between the banks, a few feet down, but that there are exceptions.
Parts of St. Cin Park in Hazelwood, including a few backyards along Palm Drive, were already remediated in recent years. So was a high bank of the creek bordering Duchesne Park in Florissant. There’s an ongoing effort to remediate former baseball fields across from the airport site along McDonnell Boulevard near Boeing where children and adults used to play.
Within the year, Moser said a design plan will be in place to clean up the rest of the creek based on hot spots found from their sampling. He said the cleanup of the whole creek will be done by 2038. In 2021, the Corps’ budget for the project was $34.55 million, up from $20 million in 2019.
By late 2021, the Corps had tested to Old Halls Ferry Road, about 10 miles downstream. Of those 29,000 samples taken, the Corps said less than 5% were above evaluation criteria. Typically, every soil sample location has a minimum depth of 6 feet, with samples collected from the surface, then every 2 feet down. Sample locations exceed 20 feet, for instance, to target buried historic drainage.
By late 2021, the Corps said it had identified at least 12 areas that will likely require remediation between Interstate 270 and the Missouri River that had been discussed with individual property owners. At the time, there were 39 areas, most of them still being defined, between McDonnell Boulevard and Interstate 270.
Moser said “hundreds of properties” along the creek are not contaminated. Others are contaminated, yet not abundantly clear to the public. One of many issues raised is the lack of signage.
“We are trying to respect the privacy of the landowners,” Moser said, adding: “We are also trying to remove the stigma of Coldwater Creek.”