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Army Corps finishes cleaning contaminated soil near Florissant elementary school

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 into buses on the last day Jana Elementary was open in 2022. The Army Corps of Engineers has completed a project that removed contaminated soil from a site near the school.

The Army Corps of Engineers in St. Louis has completed moving more than two Olympic-size swimming pools' worth of soil contaminated with radioactive waste from around a north St. Louis County elementary school.

Officials from the Corps’ environmental remediation program on Wednesday announced the completion of the project from the site near Coldwater Creek and Jana Elementary School in Florissant.

“Our primary goal here is to ensure that all contaminated sites are thoroughly remediated to safeguard the well-being of the community,” said Jeremy Idleman, a spokesman for the cleanup. “That's our mission, and that's what we're going to keep doing.”

The site near the school is one of many the Corps is remediating along the 14-mile Coldwater Creek, which runs through north St. Louis County near Florissant, Hazelwood and St. Louis Lambert International Airport.

The waterway is contaminated by radioactive waste. In the mid-20th century, companies processing uranium and other material to make atomic weapons disposed of radioactive byproducts north of St. Louis. That waste eventually contaminated Coldwater Creek and some areas around it. The Army Corps of Engineers has been working to clear the contaminated material in segments.

Officials from the Hazelwood School District closed Jana in 2022 after a private firm found radioactive contamination inside the school. Other reports have found there aren’t unsafe levels of radiation inside the building.

Even so, representatives from the district said Wednesday they have no plans to reopen the school.

Former Jana PTA President Ashley Bernaugh said the announcement marks just one small step in what will be a long process to clean up all the contamination around Coldwater Creek.

“Until all of those places are actually cleaned — to standards that are close to residential standards versus industrialized standards —the cleanup level is not going to achieve immediate results,” she said.

The local community should be involved in deciding what happens to the Jana Elementary building now that the site has been remediated, Bernaugh said.

“That deserves a longer conversation,” she said. “It's a building we've all paid for as part of our commitment to education and public resources. So I think having a conversation about what becomes of that building with the community ... will still continue to be important going forward.”

Idleman said that while the size of the project was relatively small, removing the soil was difficult because it was far underground and along a steep creek bank.

The scrutiny from the public motivated the agency to work quickly, he said. Sometimes workers put in 10-hour days to complete the project.

“That was one of the contributing factors,” Idleman said “Because of the public outcry, we’ve made it our priority to go ahead and start with that property.”

The soil was loaded into railroad cars and taken out of state, he said.

Environmental workers have historically been working upstream to downstream to minimize recontaminating sites as they clean up the creek bed, he said.

The Corps is focusing now on removing soil from near McDonnell Boulevard north of the airport.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated how much contaminated soil was removed from the site.

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.