Jana Elementary School to close, students will begin virtual learning after radioactive waste found

Jana Elementary in the Hazelwood District
Jana Elementary in the Hazelwood District
Published: Oct. 17, 2022 at 6:38 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 18, 2022 at 6:35 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - The Hazelwood School District will close Jana Elementary School on October 24 after radioactive contamination was found at the school.

The decision was made Tuesday night during a school board meeting. Students will begin virtual learning on October 24 and stay virtual through the end of the semester. The two pre-k classrooms will be transferred to Barrington Elementary School in Florissant, also effective Monday, October 24.

The school administration will assign students to other schools within the district for the beginning of the second semester.

“It was very disturbing to have found out what is happening at the school. This is a very serious situation we are faced with and my administration will assist in any way possible if asked upon by the school district and Army Corps of Engineers,” Florissant Mayor Robert Lowery said in a statement.

The mayor - a graduate of the Hazewood District - said he’s invested in making sure families are being told what’s going on.

“One thing that I think the parents are asking for is to be transparent and get the information to them as soon as they have it and if they need to do anything with their children and staff members, it can be done,” Lowery said. “So I think the word transparency is an important word.”

“I’m really concerned and I don’t want to take my son back to school,” said Mohanned Badra who has a son attending the school.

Ashley Bernaugh, president of the Jana parent-teacher association, released the findings of the testing. The report was prepared by Boston Chemical Data Corp. It concluded that radioactive waste was found in dust in classrooms, the kitchen, the library and the HVAC system. And radioactive waste was also found outside on the surface of a playground and ballfields.

The report said in some places the radiation levels given off by the material were 22 times higher than the level of radiation naturally occurring, called background levels, given off by soil. However, a radiation testing consulting firm that spoke to News 4 on the background and asked that their company not be mentioned by name, said the report used a national average background level and not the background level found in Missouri soil, which has a higher-than-average level.

News 4 reached out to Washington University professor of physics and chemistry, who read the report and spoke with its author.

“Anxiety should not be the principle outcome of this,” Lee Sobotka said.

Professor Sobotka said only the highest readings were used to compare to the background level and if all readings had been averaged, they would be close to the background levels found in uncontaminated soil in Missouri. He concluded that there is no immediate health risk to students or school employees.

Karen Nickel is co-founder of Just Moms STL, a group that’s been fighting for the cleanup of nuclear waste for ten years.

“Kids don’t belong on playgrounds or in buildings where there’s any amount of Manhattan Project radioactive waste,” she said.

Decades ago, uranium used for atomic weapons, was processed in St. Louis. Radioactive waste was dumped in piles near Lambert St. Louis International Airport where rain and wind swept it into nearby Coldwater Creek. It’s believed that floodwater from the creek deposited radioactive waste on the school grounds and in neighborhoods along the creek over the years.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division within the CDC, concluded in 2018 that radioactive contamination in and around Coldwater Creek could have increased the risk of some types of cancer for people who played or lived there.

The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers has been digging up radioactive waste along the banks of the creek in recent years. The agency released a statement about the recent testing at the school which says in part:

“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.”

But the statement also said that the report wasn’t consistent with its accepted evaluation techniques.

When the Hazelwood School District was contacted to ask what steps were being taken to protect students and employees, a spokesperson would only refer back to a statement released Friday. It said:

“The Hazelwood School District is aware of the report regarding radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary. Safety is always our top priority, and we are actively discussing the implications of the findings. The Board of Education will be consulting with attorneys and experts in this area of testing to determine the next steps.”

Christen Commuso with the Missouri Coalition For The Environment said the district should be taking steps now to protect students and immediately begin a cleanup.

“The reality is they knew in 2018 they knew the Army Corp was interested in testing this property and at that point, they should have had a plan in place and ready to pull the trigger as soon as they got results,” she said.

You can read the report on contamination in the school here.