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Missouri elementary school where radioactive waste was found will switch to virtual instruction

Students at a Missouri elementary school where “unacceptably high” levels of radioactive waste were found will switch to virtual learning, the school board has announced.

At a packed meeting Tuesday evening, the Hazelwood School District’s board told concerned parents that Jana Elementary School in Florissant will switch to virtual instruction Monday, with plans to redistrict students to other area schools after Thanksgiving break.

The board apologized to parents and said it planned to work with legal counsel to ensure cleanup of hazardous material at Jana.

In emotional speeches, parents thanked board members for taking steps to protect their kids — while expressing anger at a lack of transparency from the school district. Many said they first found out about the radioactive waste in their children’s school from Facebook posts or news reports.

“I can get a call about a crayon or a pencil, but I can’t get a call” about nuclear waste, said Kimberly Anderson, whose three grandchildren attend Jana Elementary.

Tuesday’s meeting followed a report last week from an environmental investigations firm that revealed that radioactive lead more than 22 times the expected level was found in Jana Elementary School kindergarten playground and more than 12 times the expected level was found by the school’s basketball courts. 

Jana Elementary sits in the flood plain of Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated during the 1940s and ’50s when radioactive waste from weapons production for World War II was dumped nearby. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been cleaning up the creek for more than two decades. It has been testing the area around the creek for years, but never tested inside or within 300 feet of the elementary school.

Documents obtained earlier this year by people advocating for the safety of students showed low-level contamination in the banks of the creek close to the school based on the Corps of Engineers’ 2018 tests. The school board was presented with those findings in June, according to the Associated Press.

Last week’s independent report from Boston Chemical Data Corp. marked the first time samples had been taken from inside Jana Elementary and confirmed parents’ worst fears. It showed that radioactive levels were likely posing an “unacceptably high risk to the children.” 

The Army Corps of Engineers downplayed those findings. 

“The Boston Chemical Data Corp. report is not consistent with our accepted evaluation techniques and must be thoroughly vetted to ensure accuracy,” said Phil Moser, a program manager overseeing the investigation and cleanup of sites that were part of the country’s early atomic energy and weapons program. 

Hazelwood School District Board Meeting announces Jana Elementary School educational measures, in Florissant, Mo., on Wednesday.
Hazelwood School District Board Meeting announces Jana Elementary School educational measures, in Florissant, Mo., on Wednesday.HSD Board of Education Meeting via YouTube

“Any contamination posing a high risk or immediate threat would be made a priority for remediation,” his statement continued. 

Hours before Tuesday’s meeting, Jana parent-teacher association president Ashley Bernaugh said she hoped community members would be supportive of the school board.

“We know our school district didn’t make this waste,” she said, adding that she places the blame on the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Energy for not taking steps to test and clean up the school.

The student population of Jana Elementary, located just outside the city of St. Louis, is approximately 80% Black. One father pleaded with the school board to view the contamination as an urgent environmental justice issue.

Parents said that they and others they know in the community had been diagnosed with rare cancers or faced other serious health problems that they felt were a direct result of their exposure to radioactive waste. 

Karen Nickel, co-founder of environmental activist group Just Moms STL, attended Hazelwood School District as a child and told the school board she has several autoimmune conditions. She thanked board members for not keeping students inside  Jana Elementary.

“No one protected me. No one stood up for me,” she said, her voice breaking. “The school district, the board, they didn’t know. They couldn’t stand up for me, and you guys are saving lives. You’re going to save lives.”

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