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Hazelwood School District tests for radioactive contamination at elementary school near Coldwater Creek

A spokesperson for the Hazelwood School District says the experts say there are no immediate risks.

FLORISSANT, Mo. — It's been a problem brewing for decades.

Coldwater Creek and the radioactive waste dumped there have been threatening neighborhoods since the 1940s.

The impacts continue today and are now even affecting an elementary school.

The Hazelwood School District has notified parents about the potential risks this may have on Jana Elementary and how it could impact the upcoming school year.

On Aug. 5, 2022, parents at Jana Elementary School received a letter.

It said that on Jan. 27, 2022, the district was notified by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that soil sampling showed a presence of low-level radioactive contamination on the banks of Coldwater Creek, which is on the edge of Jana's property boundary.

William Johnson was one of those parents who got this notification.

"We were just getting informed about this on Aug. 5," Johnson said. 

The current dangers that creep in their backyard are linked to the past.

The history

St. Louis was a big part of the Manhattan Project.

Mallinckrodt Chemical Works, located north of downtown St. Louis, processed a majority of the uranium for the building of the first atomic bomb.

The waste from Mallinckrodt was transported and stored at a site north of St. Louis Lambert International Airport from 1947 until the late 1960s.

It was then purchased by Continental Mining and Milling Company and moved to a site half a mile away.

The radioactive waste was not stored in a protective manner and this resulted in the washing of radioactive material into nearby Coldwater Creek. 

The creek, going upstream and downstream, carried this radioactive material into north St. Louis County, contaminating much of the soil around the creek.

"Those bombs were meant to kill people and that is what is left over from that radioactive waste," said Jana's PTA President Ashley Bernaugh.

Bernaugh points out the amount of chemicals in that contaminated soil range from uranium to radium to lead and mercury.

The efforts

Now, advocates want change.

Environmental experts like the Missouri Coalition for the Environment worry about the risks. 

"Eighty years later we are still dealing with those consequences," said Christen Commuso, community outreach specialist. "It is sad that this is taken this long and that we are still fight for the most basic protection. It created tons of tons of waste and dispersed in north St. Louis County."

Plus, Commuso said people have been and continue to get sick. 

"It does lead to cancer, bone cancer, leukemia, breast and brain cancer," Commuso said.

Bernaugh worries for her own fifth grader and others.

That's why she demanded transparency.

She said in June she pushed the Board of Education to inform the public about this.

The BOE took it up in two separate meetings in June and July.

For the July meeting, the group decided to not act and tell the parents about this radioactive material.

Bernaugh believes the board had been given wrong information by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was given misleading details.

After attaining a FOIA request and gaining access in 2021, Bernaugh found details of a map with more sample results involving Jana's property.

The PTA sent a letter to the board with this information and the BOE responded with this new letter to parents.

A spokesperson for the Hazelwood School District said the experts say there are no immediate risks but they are choosing to move forward with additional testing to put minds at ease.

The school district is doing further testing including the school building, but the results won't be ready by the start of the school year.

Parents now have to decide whether to send their kids back to school or go virtual.

Parents need to notify the district by Monday, Aug. 15 if virtual learning is the next step for them. 

Johnson plans to send his daughter back and believes more testing is the right step taken.

"Let's make sure there is nothing in the school in the ground by the playground where the kids are," he said.

If results confirm there is no unsafe level, students participating in virtual learning will be required to return to in-person immediately.

If the test results indicate an unsafe level of radioactive material, Jana Elementary will convert to all virtual for the first semester of the school year.

During that time, the district will prepare an alternate facility for students to attend the second semester in person.

If there is no acceptable facility found prior to the second semester, students may be assigned to a different school within the district.

US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) also sent this statement:

“The contamination is below the surface, low level radiation, and does not pose immediate health or safety risks to the public in its current configuration. Any contamination posing a high risk or immediate threat to human health or the environment would be made a priority for remediation. The majority of the over 200 soil samples located on the property are below Remediation Goals (RGs) in accordance with the FUSRAP North St. Louis County Sites Record of Decision (ROD). There are 5 locations near the Coldwater Creek © bank in a densely wooded area that are above RGs. The area is not easily accessible and due to the specific nature and location of the contamination, no one is being exposed. Additionally, in response to the recent flooding event, The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) St. Louis District Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) conducted a thorough evaluation and data collection exercise for the entire length of Coldwater Creek (CWC) within site boundaries. The data is still being evaluated, but early indication is that no sample results will be above RGs. We at FUSRAP are invested in the well-being of the community and will continue to perform the mission at hand, which is protecting human health and the environment, executing the approved alternative for cleaning up the radioactive contamination above health-based cleanup guidelines, minimizing adverse impacts on residents and area business operations and return sites for appropriate beneficial use.”

As far as ongoing efforts, Commuso said there is a partnership between Missouri Environment for the Coalition and Just Moms STL. 

Just Moms STL is an advocacy group of moms informing the risks and radioactive wastes in north St. Louis County.

The new alliance is called the STL Toxic Waste Alliance and soon they will canvass the area to share knowledge and the risks involved.

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