HAZELWOOD, Mo. — In an unusual show of bipartisanship, Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley and Democratic U.S. Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri asked the federal government to perform more testing for radioactive contamination on properties owned by the Hazelwood School District.
In a letter sent Wednesday to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, Hawley and Bush said the agency should respond to a request by the district to have all its properties tested.
The request comes after district officials received conflicting information last year about radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary School in the St. Louis suburb of Florissant.
Jana Elementary opened in 1970 and sits in the flood plain of Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated with radioactive waste generated when Mallinckrodt Chemical processed uranium in the 1940s and 1950s for atomic weapons.
The Corps’ remediation of the creek is not expected to be finished until 2038, Corps officials have said.
Corps spokesman J. P. Rebello said in a statement the agency has been in contact with the district and elected officials and is currently evaluating its authority to conduct additional testing.
He said agency officials will meet with the school board soon and congressional staff this week to continue discussions and “find a path forward.”
Jana Elementary was closed in October when testing by a private company found contamination on the kindergarten playground and inside the building. The study was funded by lawyers whose clients are suing over radioactive contamination in Coldwater Creek, which runs near the school.
In response, the Corps of Engineers did its own study, which found no contamination above normal levels inside the school or in multiple soil samples outside. Subsequent testing by a private firm hired by the district also found no harmful levels of radioactive material.
In their letter, Hawley and Bush said the confusion over the contamination has upended the lives of the district's parents and students and raised questions about the extent of the contamination.
“Concerned parents deserve certainty about the safety of their children’s learning environment and on that, USACE can and should help,” they wrote.
Bush said in a statement Wednesday:
“Logically, we cannot assume that the only evidence of radioactive waste is limited to the grounds of Jana Elementary School. It is critical that the Army Corps tests all surrounding areas for radioactive waste, and that is precisely what Senator Hawley and I are calling for in our letter. The health and safety of our children, teachers, and community members isn’t a partisan issue. That is what comes first. That is what is most important. I am committed to using every tool available and taking every action necessary to ensure that the Corps has the funding and support necessary to accomplish their goal of providing safety to everyone in Missouri’s First District.”
Just Moms STL Advocate Dawn Chapman said this letter is hopefully a good sign of progress.
"I think this letter really goes straight to the heart of the Department of Energy and what they did here back in the forties and fifties with the Manhattan Project. I think for the first time we're seeing a huge mountain begin to crumble in the very beginning of this agency being forced to come back and correct this enormous wrong," Chapman said.
Christen Commuso, Community Outreach Specialist for Missouri Coalition for the Environment said in a statement:
"We're grateful to see the Hazelwood School District continues to have the support of our elected officials in Washington. Senator Hawley and Congresswoman Bush's letter highlights the unfortunate set of circumstances and decisions the district faces. We are aware additional testing and potential cleanup of radioactive waste may require more funding and capacity. That's why we're happy to see that Congresswoman Bush has already put out the request for more funding. And, in the spirit of continued partnership, we're hopeful Senator Hawley will do the same. The health and safety of the children and staff will always be our top concern."
Chapman said this cleanup is long overdue and if someone doesn't take actions there will be more problems.
"If they don't, then you have legacies of cancer, and I think that many of us are already seeing that. And we can't do anything about the past exposure, but we certainly can do, and we should do everything we can to prevent people right now from being exposed. We can stop it," Chapman said.