By JIM SALTER Associated Press
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 inside from school.
The contamination was in classrooms, the playground and elsewhere at Jana Elementary School in Florissant, Missouri, according to a report last week by the Boston Chemical Data Corp. It follows another study by the US Army Corps of Engineers. The US, made public in the summer, found contamination from the production of World War II-era nuclear weapons 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 Monday and is planned until students can be moved to different schools, tentatively scheduled for November 28. It is unclear when Jana Elementary School will reopen.
The school board, in a statement after the closed-door meeting, said remediation is necessary but acknowledged “this is causing a disruption to our students’ education and school climate.”
The decision was made even as a Corps official raised questions about the Boston Chemical study. Phillip Moser, manager of the Corps’ Formerly Used Sites Remedial Action Program in St. Louis, said the agency’s assessments found no contamination between the wooded site and the school or its playground. He called the Boston Chemical report “incomplete and not consistent with the approved processes required to do an assessment at one of our sites.”
Still, several politicians urged the immediate closure of the school.
The new report concerned 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 breast cancer. bone, 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 if the students will continue at school for the rest of the week. District spokeswoman Jordyn Elston said she had no information for the rest of the week.
Many speakers at the meeting welcomed the school closure, but wondered why the school district didn’t raise the issue. Some said they first heard about it on the news or on Facebook.
“I’m glad you have a plan now,” said Patrice Strickland, who has two children at the school. “I am so happy that you are considering our babies now. But just contact us.”
Nuclear waste from World War II weapons production as part of the Manhattan Project polluted Coldwater Creek. Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. processed uranium ore in St. Louis from 1942 to 1957 and shipped the tailings to a site near Lambert Airport, where it made its way into the 19-mile-long canal that empties into the Missouri River.
The Environmental Protection Agency designated the creek a Superfund site in 1989. Remediation efforts — digging up the contaminated soil and taking it by covered rail car to a waste management facility in Idaho — aren’t expected to be complete until 2038. .
Dawn Chapman, co-founder of the Just Moms STL environmental group that pushed for the Coldwater Creek cleanup, acknowledged the difficulty of connecting disease to pollution. But Chapman said the new report, funded by two law firms seeking compensation for illnesses and deaths allegedly caused by contamination from the creek, has raised concerns for current and former parents, teachers and staff.
“Everyone is terrified,” Chapman said.
The Boston Chemical study cited levels of the radioactive isotope of lead-210 that were 22 times higher than the level expected on the kindergarten playground. He also found high levels of polonium, radium, and other materials in various locations around 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 possible 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, that can have much more of a psychological impact, worrying about radiation, than actual radiation injuries.”
The school, which is in a subdivision surrounded by houses, opened in the 1970s and has educated thousands of children, said Christen Commuso of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. While the area along Coldwater Creek is mixed, about 80% of Jana Elementary School’s 400 students are Black.
“You’re talking about children over the decades who have been exposed to this.” Comuso said.
Eventually, 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 School,” Bernaugh said. “I’ll go down fighting for it.”
AP reporter John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas, contributed to this report.
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