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Scientist calls Jana Elementary contamination study 'misleading'; lead author stands by report

A nuclear scientist at Washington University calls the study by the Boston Chemical Data Corporation over-simplistic.

ST. LOUIS COUNTY, Mo. — Fear and anxiety are at a new high after a study found “unacceptable levels” of radioactive waste at an elementary school in the Hazelwood school district.

Ashley Bernaugh was driving in the car after dropping off her son at daycare when she learned of an invisible threat. 

“I heard about this on the radio that there was radioactive contamination in St Louis," said Bernaugh, president of Jana Elementary School's Parent Teacher Association.

A new class-action lawsuit blames a private company called Cotter Corporation, saying it improperly handled waste from chemical processing for our county’s atomic bombs in the 1940s. Bernaugh learned Coldwater Creek, a 19-mile-long stream that runs through her neighborhood, was a source of contamination. And for seven years, the PTA president has been demanding answers. 

"Do you think that there was lack of transparency throughout the process?” asked the I-Team's Paula Vasan.

“Absolutely," Bernaugh said. "But I really do put the blame of lack of transparency back to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Energy. They came and made a presentation in June and basically told the school board members that there was no contamination.” 

But a CDC report in 2019 told a different story. It estimated that exposure to Coldwater Creek “could have increased the risk of developing lung cancer, bone cancer, or leukemia.”

It also said the risk was low, likely not resulting “in detectable increased cancer rates in the community...”

“Do you feel you were lied to?” asked Vasan.

When asked if she felt she was lied to, Bernaugh said “100 percent." 

Jana Elementary students are now learning from home after a new study discovered something troubling: Radioactive contamination at the school. It measured 22 times higher than normal in one of the locations it studied. 

“We're worried. We're concerned," Bernaugh said.

“It has some misleading content," said Lee Sobotka, a nuclear scientist at Washington University, regarding the new study.

Professor Sobotka calls the study by the Boston Chemical Data Corporation over-simplistic. He says too few samples were taken to have conclusive results. 

“It makes the radiological issue appear worse than it is," Sobotka said.

He said it adds to anxiety.

According to Sobotka, there are two main issues facing students, parents, and school officials at Jana Elementary: health concerns from radioactive waste and the anxiety that comes with it. “They've got a whole set of anxiety issues hanging on them now... At the same time, if you ask someone what the consequences of very low levels of radiation exposure are, you are not going to get an answer."

When asked if he'd send his children to Jana Elementary, Sobotka said, “I would not have a problem."

The study’s author, Marco Kaltofen with the Boston Chemical Data Corporation, said his study is not misleading. 

“I believe that the level of concern is warranted. We stand by our report," he said.

He also said more investigation is necessary. Bernaugh is just glad she trusted her gut.

“If something feels wrong. Ask about it. Ask the questions," Bernaugh said.

Parents tell us Jana Elementary School students will be learning from home until at least Thanksgiving. Meanwhile, federal officials will begin testing inside and outside the school on Monday.

We requested an interview with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Department of Energy. Spokespeople said they were not available for interviews. 

The area around Jana Elementary school is not considered a U.S. Dept. of Energy site. It’s under the domain of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. 

Phil Moser with the US Army Corps of Engineers sent 5 On Your Side the following statement via email: 

“The US Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP) team is committed to our mission of executing the Record of Decision (ROD) for The North St. Louis County Sites. Our team will evaluate the Boston Chemical Data Corp. report and methods used to create these results. The Boston Chemical Data Corp. report is not consistent with our accepted evaluation techniques and must be thoroughly vetted to ensure accuracy. 

"The Jana Elementary School property does have FUSRAP contamination near the CWC bank that is below ground surface and in a densely wooded area. However, the sample locations in the actual floodplain between the Coldwater Creek (CWC) bank and playground area are not contaminated. 

"While the evaluation is ongoing, early indications from the data are that the FUSRAP contamination is isolated to the CWC bank.  The team has been coordinating with the Hazelwood School District regarding the status of sampling on the property. Any contamination posing a high risk or immediate threat to human health or the environment would be made a priority for remediation. 

"In addition to this property, our team of local area scientists and engineers have collected more than 40,000 samples and various measurements from along CWC. The St. Louis FUSRAP Team takes pride in the use of industry standard sampling and analysis procedures, consistent evaluations using the Multi-Agency Radiation Survey and Site Investigation Manual (MARSSIM), third party reviews and a robust quality control / quality assurance program. We also consult with state and federal regulatory agencies to ensure our methods and conclusions are consistent and in accordance with the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) process. 

"The St. Louis FUSRAP Team remains committed to this community and will continue to perform our primary mission of protecting human health and the environment.”

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