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Scientists agree with Army Corps that Jana Elementary is safe, but community still skeptical

A woman in an all black outfit looks skeptically at something out of frame. She is sitting and surrounded by other people.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Ashley Bernaugh, president of the Jana Elementary PTA, looks on during a presentation from the Army Corps of Engineers on the safety of Jana Elementary on Thursday at the Florissant Municipal Court building. Bernaugh is skeptical of the building’s safety, due to its proximity to contamination the Corps is currently remediating in Coldwater Creek’s bank.

In a room lined with large posters of charts and maps, officials from the Army Corps of Engineers again tried to convince the public that Jana Elementary School is safe.

Officials at an open house Thursday night answered questions from audience members who were at times upset and openly critical. The room was full of empty chairs, and community members questioned why there hadn't been more communication about the event.

The corps recently published the final of three reports from testing at the school. The reports look at structures, lead-210 and soil at Jana Elementary School. The conclusion from all three reports is that the school is safe.

“The school does not require remediation, because from a radiological standpoint, the school is safe,” said Phil Moser, chief of the FUSRAP and environmental branch in the Army Corps of Engineers' St. Louis district. “Our extensive amount of surveying and testing that we did, and the associated documentation, verifies that.”

The Corps conducted this testing after the Hazelwood School District closed Jana in October. That decision was in response to a report that said there were unacceptable levels of radioactive material inside the school.

Jana Elementary School is next to Coldwater Creek, which the Army Corps acknowledges is contaminated. In the 1940s and '50s, Mallinckrodt Chemical Works stored waste materials from the creation of atomic bombs for the Manhattan Project five miles upstream from the school in north St. Louis County. Rainwater washed this waste into Coldwater Creek, and the Corps says there is currently contamination in about 40 areas along the creek. Agency officials said Thursday that this contamination does not currently pose a risk to human health because it is below ground surface or away from populated areas.

Tools used for measuring radiation are displayed atop a red tablecloth.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Equipment that would be used to detect radiation is displayed on Thursday at the Florissant Municipal Court building. The Army Corps of Engineers had experts on hand during the open house to explain how the equipment worked to curious attendees.

The initial report that claimed Jana Elementary School was unsafe was from the private firm Boston Chemical Data Corp., which was hired by lawyers who are pursuing lawsuits related to contamination in Coldwater Creek.

Soon after closing Jana, the Hazelwood School District also hired a company to do more testing, St. Charles-based SCI Engineering. That firm told the Hazelwood School Board that its findings were in line with the Corps’ results.

“Jana Elementary is as safe as any other school. If we go to any other school and we do dust wipes and we do soil samples, we’re going to find exactly the same thing,” Glen Grissom of SCI Engineering told the board in November.

Now, months later, scientists from two local universities are criticizing Boston Chemical’s findings and say the Corps’ and SCI’s conclusions are trustworthy.

'St. Louis on the Air': Extended conversation with Roger Lewis and analysis

St. Louis University Professor Emeritus Roger Lewis says Boston Chemical’s president, Marco Kaltofen, did not use standard methods for determining what he said he found. For one thing, the methods he used aren’t meant to determine exposure. Lewis said Kaltofen used methods that can tell if something is present, but not if it is present at a harmful level that could cause something like cancer.

“The methods that he presented were, at times, incomprehensible, unclear and flat-out incorrect for coming to the conclusion that there is harmful levels of radioactive materials in the building,” Lewis said.

A man in a short sleeved, blue button up shirt stands with one thumb in his pocket. He is looking off and out of frame. Behind him is a wall of greenery, and toward the bottom, the cement of a parking lot is also visible.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis University Professor Emeritus Roger Lewis, photographed on Thursday at the Florissant Municipal Court building. Lewis has criticized the methodology Boston Chemical Data Corp. used in determining Jana Elementary contained unsafe levels of radiation, pointing out that the methods used are not intended to determine exposure.

The scientists are also questioning Kaltofen’s conclusion that what he found was related to the Mallinckrodt contamination in Coldwater Creek.

At a technical scientific forum on Jana at St. Louis University in April, Lee Sobotka, a professor of chemistry and physics at Washington University, explained the science behind connecting something like lead-210 to the Mallinckrodt contamination.

Sobotka said hydrologists have found that drainage systems don’t always work as they should, which can lead to elevated levels of lead-210 in places where rainwater pools, like parking lots. Sobotka looked at Kaltofen’s data from his testing and said he found a signature that is consistent with sediment from rain, not contamination from Mallinckrodt.

Both scientists also pointed out that there is naturally occurring radiation in the environment, known as background radiation. Radiologically, Sobotka doesn’t see why Jana couldn’t be redeployed as a school, but he’s not sure that’s the issue anymore.

“The question is, will the public find confidence with that outcome? And if they can't have confidence with it, then the consequences of that may make the school untenable,” Sobotka said at the forum. “But that's just where I'm standing. Perhaps things will evolve and people will find comfort in this.”

SLU’s Lewis said on top of the issues he has with Kaltofen’s report, much of this confusion around whether or not Jana is safe stems from our inability to discuss complex scientific questions. He said that the Army Corps of Engineers consists of “very technical people presenting very technical stuff,” and that fear was not managed well by most of the parties that have been involved.

“People often want very simple answers, and they're often very hard to give,” Lewis said.

A woman stands at a podium, looking at one of two projection screens that are displayed behind her. The screens show information labeled "Coldwater Creek." In the foreground are two people in Army uniforms — only the backs of their heads are seen.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Jo Anne Wade, a project manager with the Army Corps of Engineers, provides an update on the Corps’ efforts at Coldwater Creek on Thursday at the Florissant Municipal Court building. After the Corps’ presentations and audience questions, Wade and other experts stayed and answered additional questions from attendees.

Boston Chemical’s Kaltofen is standing by his conclusions. He said his data show clearly that there are hazardous levels of radioactive waste at the school and it is from Mallinckrodt. He added that he’s ready to move on to cleaning up the school, instead of debating the merits of different tests.

“Frankly, from a kindergartener’s point of view, their body doesn't care who's responsible for the lead-210,” Kaltofen said.

Some Jana Elementary parents are still skeptical of the Corps’ results. On Thursday, Jana Elementary PTA President Ashley Bernaugh said she has trouble believing that Jana is safe when it is right next to contamination the Corps is currently remediating in Coldwater Creek’s bank. She also says the school is in a community that has a history of health concerns around the contaminated sites in north St. Louis County.

“This is really real to us. Our kids go here. We live here. And so as you hear the stories, it's not like we're just like, ‘Well, you know, radioactivity is not great, but we haven't heard of anybody being sick.’ No, this community is full of sick people,” Bernaugh said. “We don't want to be Chicken Little, right? Like, we're not screaming, ‘the sky is falling.’ But there are really real, sick people here. And their stories are just completely being obscured by this, ‘it's safe’ narrative.”

Bernaugh wants all of the groups that have done testing at the school to go back and test the same samples at the same time, so the community can directly compare the results. But she says even if the school is cleaned up, she’s not sure she will trust it.

“Hopefully, once [federal agencies] clean it up, then we can have some level of safety, but we're worried about the thresholds in which they're going to leave behind,” Bernaugh said.

Congress is currently considering legislation related to the school. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis County, both introduced legislation in their respective chambers to clean up Jana Elementary School and require further testing of all Hazelwood School District buildings. The U.S. Senate passed Hawley’s Justice for Jana Act in April. The House has not taken action on Bush’s legislation.

For now, Jana Elementary School is still closed. The Hazelwood School District is not planning to reopen it anytime soon.

Clarification: Clarifying brackets were added to Ashley Bernaugh's quote to specify who she was referencing.

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