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Bush, Hawley call for federal cleanup of Jana Elementary after contamination report

A bus picks up students at Jana Elementary School
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Students board buses on Thursday, the last day Jana Elementary School in Florissant will be open. Environmental investigation consultants have found significant radioactive contamination at the school, which sits in the flood plain of Coldwater Creek — a body of water contaminated by radioactive nuclear waste from weapons production during World War II.

Updated at 6 p.m. Oct. 20 with comments from a parent and student

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush and U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley are calling for a swift federal response to reports of contamination that prompted officials to indefinitely close Jana Elementary School in Florissant.

Federal defense contractors polluted nearby Coldwater Creek in the 1940s and ‘50s with nuclear radiation from processed uranium ore. A study by the private firm Boston Chemical Data Corp. dated Oct. 10 cited “unacceptable levels” of radiation throughout the school grounds.

Bush called Thursday for the Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers to conduct an immediate cleanup and meet with the community this week.

“These agencies are responsible for the waste. They must clean it up immediately. No excuses,” Bush said during an online press conference Thursday. “We need to see the swift remediation efforts to ensure that we minimize disruptions to the lives of our children, our families, our teachers and the school staff.”

Hawley asked President Joe Biden to declare a federal emergency to free up additional funds to complete the cleanup, and for the federal government to build a new school for affected students if the current building can’t be made safe immediately.

“The federal government bears ultimate responsibility for this situation, and it is your administration’s obligation to remedy it,” Hawley wrote in a letter to Biden that he made public Wednesday. “Federal relief should focus on ridding the school and surrounding area of any and all contamination, immediately, drawing on all appropriate federal resources and personnel.”

The Hazelwood school board announced Tuesday evening that Jana students will soon switch to remote learning until they can be placed in other school buildings. Officials said the remote learning will continue until at least Thanksgiving.

 Parents packed the Hazelwood School District's Board of Education meeting Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022 in Florissant. District officials announced Jana Elementary will temporarily close because of radioactive contamination in the school.
Kate Grumke
St. Louis Public Radio
Parents pack the Hazelwood School District's Board of Education meeting Tuesday in Florissant. District officials announced Jana Elementary will temporarily close because of radioactive contamination.

On Thursday, Jana Elementary held its final classes for what will likely be some time. Parents weren’t happy that students would lose the chance to learn in the classroom.

“To be honest, like my anxiety went through the roof because we have to start virtual all over again,” said Teana Taylor, who arrived to pick up her daughter. “And virtual was like a nightmare to me, you know? So it's just kind of hurts cause you got to, you know, try to figure out where your child going to go if you have work and stuff like that. And that's what type of, you know, mindset that I'm on.

“Me and my husband, we have to figure it out versus her coming to school and, you know, hanging with her peers and, you know, learning. So I basically love in-person school versus virtual, but I also want my daughter to be safe at the same time.”

Taylor’s daughter, Jayla, 9, said not being in school will be tough because she won’t see many of her friends.

“I'm feeling like that is just hurting because, like, I won't see them no more in a time in my life,” she said. “But maybe I'll see them. Maybe I'll see them, um, probably in a store or anything. But I have one friend who lives by me, so I'll see her every day.”

Jayla said said she understands the school needs to close to keep her and her classmates safe. But she said her heart dropped when she heard she’d have to go back to virtual classes.

“I don't want to miss any time of school, you know.”

Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Staff and visitor vehicles sit outside Jana Elementary School on Thursday in Florissant. Thursday was the last day of student attendance after radioactive contamination was found at the school stemming from weapon manufacturing during World War II.

The Boston Data Corp. study contradicts a finding by the Army Corps of Engineers that the area is safe. The federal report was completed in 2019 but not made public until this year, in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ongoing remediation of contaminated dirt near Coldwater Creek is scheduled to be complete in 2038. The agency declared the area to be a Superfund site in 1989 and began removing contaminated soil a few years later.

About 80% of students at Jana Elementary are Black. A 2019 study found that Black St. Louisans are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards compared to white residents, in part due to the dumping of hazardous materials in predominantly Black areas.

The school’s Parent Teacher Association said in a statement that the results of the Boston Chemical Data Corp. are conclusive and asked the Army Corps of Engineers to work in collaboration with the company.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
Kate Grumke covers higher education and the many school districts in the region for St. Louis Public Radio.

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