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Army Corps of Engineers claims Jana Elementary is safe for students, disputing private report

Students load busses on the last day Jana Elementary School will be open after it was found to be contaminated with radioactive material
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Students load busses on the last day Jana Elementary School will be open on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in Florissant. Environmental investigation consultants have found significant radioactive contamination at the school, which sits in the flood plain of Coldwater Creek— a body of water contaminated by radioactive nuclear waste from weapons production during World War II.

The Army Corps of Engineers says results from a new preliminary analysis show Jana Elementary is safe for students and staff, but at a contentious school board meeting, some parents and environmental activists doubted the information the corps presented.

During a Wednesday morning presentation to the Hazelwood School District Board of Education, Army Corps officials said preliminary results from their testing show the school is safe from a radiological standpoint.

“We have a commitment to continue to search for the truth and continue to search for any contaminant concern,” Colonel Kevin Golinghorst said. “Right now, based off our extensive sampling and testing, we do not see that concern.”

The corps conducted tests at the school after a separate report from a private firm found “unacceptable levels” of radioactive contamination in the school’s classrooms, library, kitchen and on playgrounds.

In response to that report, the school district decided to close Jana Elementary in October. Students have been learning virtually since then and will be reassigned to other elementary schools after Thanksgiving.

The Army Corps said its most recent testing inside the school found no radioactive material above “the expected range of background levels.”

These results are preliminary and the corps did not share specific numbers during its presentation Wednesday. It expects to share a full report in the coming weeks, but says it is confident with its overall takeaway that the elementary school is safe. Because the results are preliminary, the school district is not changing anything about how the elementary school is operating.

Throughout the presentation, school board members repeatedly questioned why the Army Corps’ preliminary results were so different from the Boston Chemical Data Corporation’s results.

“You can understand our concern when we have one report screaming, ‘oh my God, get them kids out of there,’ and then your report a month later saying, ‘there's nothing there.’” said Board member Sylvester Taylor. “You can understand our angst.”

The Corps officials would not comment on the private firm’s report but did said its methods were inconsistent with how the corps does its evaluations.

“I can't speak to the methods or the actual report of the Boston Chemical,” said Phillip Moser, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “What I will say is that our investigation was completely thorough and the results of our investigation will not change. The school is safe radiologically speaking.”

Parent Teacher Association president Ashley Bernaugh was upset after the meeting and confronted the officials in front of the district building.

“The Army Corps again continues their precedent of deliberately misleading this community and leaving out important facts that help us set our decisions,” Bernaugh said.

Christen Commusso, a community outreach specialist with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, wants to see more oversight of the Army Corps of Engineers from elected officials after the presentation.

“This is impactful to hundreds of students and families in the area and yet you have these two dueling reports,” Commusso said. “All it's done is create more confusion and more distrust within the community of the agency that's tasked with cleaning it up.”

The Army Corps of Engineers will be presenting findings again at the Hazelwood School District’s board of education meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 15.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke 

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.