January 31, 2023
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The Hazelwood School District is now being asked to review all properties.

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In one big swoop, the Hazelwood School District Board of Education has radically changed its approach to dealing with radioactive contamination that may be lurking on school property, from ignoring and withholding information about its whereabouts from the public for years, to practically screaming about it from the rooftops.

Last night, the school board voted unanimously to ask the US Army Corps of Engineers to inspect nearly 30 district schools and support buildings and their surroundings for radioactive waste particles emanating from Northern District dumps associated with US nuclear weapons programs in the US. . 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

In addition, the council’s resolution asks all local, state and federal legislators to pressure the federal government to pay for all testing and cleanup costs if necessary.

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The board’s action comes a week after a county contractor asked for permission to start testing radioactive waste at the football field at Hazelwood Central High School. The request comes after a retired janitor at nearby Yana Elementary School, closed since October over radioactive waste concerns, told school authorities that soil from Yana may have been moved to a field in the 1990s to level it.

Council member Cheryl Latham noted Tuesday night that local elected officials are quick to show up at school board meetings when a photo shoot is due.

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But when it comes to complex issues like Hazelwood’s radioactive waste dilemma, it’s a different story, Latham said.

“Where are they now?” she said. “Where. Are. They. Currently? As for me, I want to make sure that we yell at the top of the mountain, to everyone who will listen that they need to bring some resources to the North District community … To all these legislators, for we vote, it’s time to go to work. It’s time to go to work.”

The school district’s sudden acceptance of transparency and widespread testing of school property represents a 180-degree turnaround from just six months ago.

For at least six years, school board members and administrators have known that the Army Corps suspects that radioactive waste has contaminated Coldwater Creek and the land surrounding the nearby Cana Elementary School. For six years, the school district and the Corps kept the public from learning about the waste testing efforts.

The sudden shift in the school district’s mindset can be attributed to Kristen Comso, a community outreach specialist for the Missouri Environmental Coalition.

For many years, the Corps and the District have refused to publicly release test results on the Janah school grounds and on the banks of Coldwater Creek. Finally, this spring, Commuso filed a request with the Corps under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The information she received in May indicated the presence of radioactive waste. In June, Commuso relayed this information to the Hazelwood School Board, the first of a series of difficult decisions.

One of the most difficult centers for the fate of Yana Elementary. The district ordered it to close in mid-October and its nearly 400 students have been sent to five other elementary schools while the school board considers whether to keep it closed in the long term.

The board ordered Jana to close after a report by private company Boston Chemical Data identified dangerous levels of radioactive waste both inside the school and on the surrounding soil. The waste comes from the nearby Coldwater Creek, which has been polluted by the Mallinckrodt Chemical Co. as part of his work building nuclear weapons for the federal government in the 1940s and 1950s.

But in November, tests by both the Corps and the school contractor SCI Engineering showed Jana was safe.

Ashley Bernau, president of Jana’s Parent-Teacher Association, praised the school board for its new willingness to “find out where the needles are in the haystack.”

But she criticized the school district for rolling out a new five-school rezoning plan for Yana’s students, calling it “terrible” because parents were not involved in its planning and implementation.

“So if we continue to ignore the public, ignore the input and experience of our parents, we are doing a disservice to our entire community,” Bernau said. “We believe that transparency is the best path. The most positive way we can move forward.”

During a 30-minute debate over the wording of the resolution, some board members indicated that they wanted testing to be prioritized based on the location of the property, with only properties being tested closest to Coldwater Creek.

Betsy Rachel, president of the board of directors, pushed for universal testing.

“Due to the fact that the dirt can move back and forth or fly off trucks, literally the entire Northern District can be infected,” she said during a meeting on Tuesday. “I think if we check all the school facilities, that’s the best way to make sure we find something.”

Before the board voted on the nationwide testing resolution, board member Sylvester Taylor warned: “If they come back and say, ‘Hey, look, there’s nothing there – there’s nothing there.’ Let’s move. But right now we’re being held hostage, okay? So what’s the solution, the way it is. Let’s move.”

“And we move together,” Rachel said.

“And we’re moving together,” Taylor said. “Amen.”

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