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Parents want Hazelwood district to publicly discuss radioactive waste at Jana Elementary

Coldwater Creek in north St. Louis County has been linked to increased cancer risk, thanks to radioactive waste that contaminated the creek bed.
Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Parents of students at Jana Elementary are asking for transparency at Tuesday's Hazelwood School Board meeting. A new report finds potentially harmful levels of radioactive waste at the school near Coldwater Creek, which contains contamination from World War II nuclear weapons work.

Parents of children who attend Jana Elementary School in Florissant want Hazelwood School District leaders to publicly discuss a report that warns of radioactive contamination on school grounds.

The report last week from Boston Chemical Data Corp. identified significant levels of radioactive waste on the school property, which sits in the Coldwater Creek floodplain. Researchers took samples from the school’s classrooms, playgrounds, ventilation systems, kitchen, library and boiler room.

The Hazelwood School Board plans to meet Tuesday night to discuss the report during a closed session before its regular meeting, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But Hazelwood Parent Teacher Association leaders said the discussion needs to happen in public.

“We need to watch and understand how our school officials, who are tasked with the governance of our school, are handling this report,” said Ashley Bernaugh, president of the district’s PTA. “We want to see what kinds of questions they have. We would like to see that discussion play out live.”

Bernaugh, the mother of a Jana Elementary student, said the independent report confirmed longstanding worries about school safety and radioactive contamination.

Coldwater Creek was contaminated by radioactive waste from the production of nuclear weapons during the 1940s and '50s. Rain, flooding and groundwater carried the waste to the creek from several sites in the St. Louis area where it had been dumped.

School district officials said in a statement that they’re aware of the report and that they will be consulting with attorneys to discuss next steps.

But Bernaugh said it’s time for federal authorities to step in.

“We're ready to stand with them and make sure that the Department of Energy, which is the organization responsible for this waste, comes and cleans it up,” Bernaugh said. “Jana Elementary does not deserve to be a holding cell for radioactive waste any longer.” 

Residents near the creek have long worried that the creek’s proximity to the school and other areas would pose significant health risks. A 2018 report by Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that people who may have ingested water, mold or dust from the creek are at risk of developing bone, lung and other cancers.

Long-term exposure to the creek could be detrimental to the children at the school, said Christen Commuso, community outreach specialist for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment.

“It's terribly frightening to think about how many kids have been exposed and will continue to be exposed until there's an expeditious and comprehensive cleanup,” Commuso said. “And it should be the Department of Energy, this is their waste, they need to come in here and clean it up.”

In May, Commuso requested the initial report that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed on the area that surrounds Coldwater Creek through a Freedom of Information Act request. She presented the findings to the Hazelwood School Board of Education in June.

In August, the district requested an independent study to search for radioactive contamination inside and outside of the elementary school.

The Corps of Engineers has been testing and cleaning up contaminated areas near the creek bed since the mid-1990s.

Local and federal government officials are aware of the independent study and will evaluate the methods used to create the results, said Phil Moser, program manager for the St. Louis district Corps of Engineers' Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program.

“The Boston Chemical Data Corp. report is not consistent with our accepted evaluation techniques and must be thoroughly vetted to ensure accuracy,” Moser said in a statement.

He said that the Jana Elementary School property near the creek bank is contaminated but that the sample location in the floodplain between the creek and the playground area is not contaminated.

Members of the Corps’ Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program are discussing the samples they are taking from the school with school district officials.

“Any contamination posing a high risk or immediate threat to human health or the environment would be made a priority for remediation,” Moser said.

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Chad is a general assignment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.
Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.