Corps to conduct further testing at contaminated school

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will conduct new testing at a Missouri grade school to learn more about the level of radioactive contamination in the school and on its playground, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush said Thursday.

Bush was among several local, state and federal lawmakers who urged the federal government to take immediate action to remediate Jana Elementary School in Florissant, Missouri, after private testing found high levels of contamination.

“We’ve been applying pressure,” Bush said. “We will continue to do so.”

Corps spokesman J.P. Rebello said testing will begin Monday. He didn’t disclose any further details, but Bush, a St. Louis Democrat, said it may be several months before testing is completed and results are known.

Jana Elementary sits near Coldwater Creek, a 19-mile-long waterway contaminated decades ago with Manhattan Project atomic waste. A 2019 federal report determined that those exposed to the creek from the 1960s to the 1990s may have an increased risk of bone cancer, lung cancer and leukemia. Environmentalists and area residents have cited several instances of extremely rare cancers that have sickened and killed people.

The Corps of Engineers has found contamination in a wooded area near the school, but hasn’t previously tested the school or its grounds. This summer, lawyers involved in a class-action lawsuit representing local residents seeking compensation for illnesses and deaths received permission from the Hazelwood School District to perform testing.

A report released earlier this month by Boston Chemical Data Corp. cited levels of radioactive isotope lead-210 that were 22 times the expected level on the kindergarten playground. It also found high levels of polonium, radium and other material inside the school.

Worried parents crowded into a school board meeting Tuesday night, when the cleanup was announced. The roughly 400 students — 80% of whom are Black — will do virtual learning for now, and will be sent to some of the district’s 19 other elementary schools starting Nov. 28.

It’s unclear exactly what the cleanup involves, how long it will take or who will pay for it. A district spokeswoman declined comment.

Coldwater Creek was contaminated in the 1940s and 1950s when waste from atomic bomb material manufactured in St. Louis got into the waterway near Lambert Airport, where the waste was stored. The result was an environmental nightmare that led to a Superfund declaration in 1989.

The site near the airport has largely been cleaned up but remediation of the creek itself won’t be finished for another 16 years, Corps officials said.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican, wrote to President Joe Biden on Wednesday, asking that he declare a federal emergency to expedite remediation. If cleanup is not feasible, Hawley said the government should pay for a new building.

Bush agreed that the federal government should bear the cost of making things right.

“For years, I’ve stood with community members in asking the Department of Energy and Army Corps to address the situation at Coldwater Creek,” Bush said. “These agencies are responsible for the waste. They must clean it up, immediately. No excuses.”

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