In October 2022, the Hazelwood School District announced that Jana Elementary in Florissant, Mo., would close indefinitely, after an independent contractor reported elevated levels of radioactive lead dust on school grounds. Educating about 400 students—80 percent of whom are Black—Jana Elementary served North St. Louis County’s economically disadvantaged students, who suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.
The sudden closure of the school left the families of Jana scrambling. At a packed school board meeting, parents learned that most of Jana would transition to “all-virtual instruction” for the next month.
The school board explained that it planned to redistrict most students, fragmenting the once tight-knit elementary school community. On December 1, former Jana students began attending five different schools in the Florissant area. Months later, in a letter to Hazelwood school district parents, the school board explained that it had “no expectation that Jana Elementary will reopen.”
The purported discovery of radioactive contamination at Jana Elementary School is only the latest blow to an area long-saddled with a slow-moving and notoriously complex environmental disaster.
In April 1942, a leading figure in the Manhattan Project, Arthur Holly Compton, met with Edward Mallinckrodt Jr., chairman of the St. Louis chemical company Mallinckrodt Chemical Works. Over a private lunch at the upscale St. Louis Noonday Club, they agreed that Mallinckrodt’s sprawling plant in downtown St. Louis would start purifying uranium. It was a crucial step in fulfilling the ultimate goal of the Manhattan Project: to build an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany did.
Months later, Mallinckrodt’s factory started receiving raw uranium ore freshly mined from the Belgian Congo. As the company continued to process the chemical element, first for the Manhattan Project and later for the US nuclear development program, Mallinckrodt ran into a problem. It was running out of space to store the leftover radioactive waste.
In 1947, the company found a cheap solution. They transported the waste roughly a dozen miles northwest to an undeveloped area near the St. Louis airport. Into the 1960s, the Mallinckrodt company continued to process uranium and transport the waste byproducts to North St. Louis County, which were eventually moved to a secondary site half a mile away. These storage sites lacked proper government oversight, and management authority was transferred over the decades between different private companies. Exposed to the elements, thousands of barrels began rusting, leaking radioactive waste into the ground. From there, the waste started seeping into a tributary called Coldwater Creek. Connected to multiple aquifers and groundwater channels, the creek spread the radioactive waste even further.
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Amid this silent contamination into communities north of the city, the postwar suburban housing boom arrived in North St. Louis County. In the 1960’s, Florissant was flourishing, with new single-family homes and generous lawns. “Our childhood growing up in North County was magical,” said Kim Visintine, who was born in Florissant in 1969. “Kids were not isolated. Almost every home on the block had several children, and we ran in groups throughout the neighborhood. It was like having a big extended family.” Coldwater Creek was just another natural feature to explore. “We had lots of freedom to roam the neighborhoods and play in the woods by the creek. It was a refreshing break on those hot summer days, just being able to slip into the cool shade of the tree line and wade through the muddy banks of the creek.” Jana Elementary opened in 1970, built along the edge of Coldwater Creek.
Visintine moved away from Florissant in 1997, unaware that she was carrying a part of Florissant within her: radioactive toxins from Coldwater Creek. Three years later, she had a child. “My firstborn son was born with a brain tumor.” Doctors performed neurosurgery one week after his birth. At three weeks, he started chemotherapy. He passed away when he was just 6 years old.
Initially, Visintine assumed that her son’s cancer was a tragic accident. But in the following years, as she continued to keep up with her high school friends, she began hearing other classmates and their children reporting brain tumors, ovarian cancers, appendix cancers, and more.
In 2011, Visintine and five childhood friends created a Facebook group called “Coldwater Creek—Just the facts Please,” determined to compel the CDC to investigate the growing number of cancer cases from current and former Florissant residents. “We had a hard time fathoming the illnesses back in 2011,” said Visintine. “They kept saying it was unusual statistically.”
A few months later, a group member and her father who still lived in Florissant attended a community meeting held by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), where they learned that the government had spent over a decade cleaning up radioactive waste stemming from World War II and Cold War–era atomic development, and that, crucially, Coldwater Creek was a conduit for the spread.
With this information, Visintine and her fellow founding members started their own investigation, consulting the CDC’s website to learn more about the radioactive elements found in Coldwater Creek and about illnesses that the US Department of Veterans Affairs describes as linked to ionizing radiation exposure. As membership expanded into the thousands, the group created extensive self-reported health surveys. In two studies completed in 2014 and 2015, they found a correlation between low-level radiation exposure and illnesses over the entire North St. Louis area.
At the same time, the government continued to conduct its own studies. In 2014, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) released an analysis of cancer rates from eight zip codes close to Coldwater Creek. The study, which factored in data from 1996 and 2011, found severely elevated levels of cancers associated with radiation exposure, including leukemia and colon and breast cancer.
Ashley Bernaugh, president of the Jana Parent Teacher Association, is among a new generation of residents in the Florissant community who have come to learn about the legacy of radioactive contamination. She first heard about it in 2015. “I was listening to the radio in the car after dropping my kid off at day care, and they said there was going to be a public meeting about radioactive contamination in North County,” said Bernaugh. “I remember thinking, ‘I’ll just show my support, but this issue won’t directly affect me.”
But when Bernaugh went to the meeting, she was surprised to find that the radiation exposure was close to home. “I’m looking at this creek and the map and I thought, this all looks familiar,” said Bernaugh. “That’s the creek flowing right past where I drop my kid for day care. And so from that day on, I asked the Corps of Engineers, ‘Do you guys know that there’s an elementary school? Has the entire Coldwater Creek been tested for radioactive contamination?’ They told me I shouldn’t worry because they hadn’t tested those areas. I couldn’t believe their response.”
In 2018, Bernaugh saw trucks rolling across school property and assumed that the Army Corps was beginning to test areas around the Creek. After filing a public records request to obtain any results, she received a bill. “I just remember thinking, I can’t afford this amount. I remember trying to explain to them that I was a member of the PTA.”
But Bernaugh was determined to make sure that the children of Jana were safe. In early 2020, she hosted a tour of the Jana property and nearby Coldwater Creek for Missouri legislators. Bernaugh filed a second public records request in the fall of 2021, shortly after attending the first public community meeting with the Army Corps since the onset of the pandemic, eventually receiving information on the testing. But Bernaugh struggled to interpret the USACE’s maps, which she said lacked a reference guide or explanatory materials.
In early 2022, still concerned about the potential for contamination on school grounds, Bernaugh reached out to Christen Commuso, an activist with the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. Bernaugh explained her difficulties obtaining information, which prompted Commuso and the MCE to file additional public records requests directed at the Hazelwood School District and the Army Corps.
Weeks later, they received a detailed report from the Army Corps showing low levels of radioactive contamination and hot spots along the banks of Coldwater Creek, which sits on the edge of the school’s property. Areas closer to the school had not been tested, based on a 2005 agreement signed by the USACE and the EPA that limited sampling to where contamination was already expected. Most startling, however, was that the documents indicated that the USACE, dating back to 2016, had notified Hazelwood School Board members that it wanted to enter school grounds to conduct testing.
Bernaugh and the Jana Elementary PTA sent a letter to parents informing them of their discoveries. On August 5, the Hazelwood School District, in a separate letter, acknowledged that the USACE had informed it of “low-level radioactive contamination” on the property on January 27, 2022. For over six months, it had failed to inform the community of these results, maintaining that the “contamination did not pose an immediate risk.” But to assuage any further worries, the district announced that it would “permit further testing on the Jana Elementary School property.”
Such testing, however, would not be completed by the Army Corps. Instead, it would be carried out by a small firm based in Massachusetts: Boston Chemical Data Corporation, whose website lists civil engineer Marco Kaltofen as its only employee and “principal investigator.” Kaltofen gained a reputation for well-publicized work documenting pollution caused by a variety of other disasters, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant accident in Japan.
In statements made to local news outlet KSDK, the school district emphasized that it did not hire Kaltofen. Rather, it authorized his firm to conduct a radiological examination paid for by two environmental lawyers: Celeste Brustowicz and Kevin W. Thompson. Both lawyers have been involved in class-action lawsuits against the US government over radioactive waste from the sites in North St. Louis
During mid-August, Kaltofen visited Jana to perform testing, collecting 32 dust, soil, and plant samples. On October 10, he published his report, concluding that radioactive isotopes were “found at levels well above background in surface soils proximate to the school building and play areas, and in indoor dusts at the Jana school.”
Kaltofen’s report quickly came under scrutiny from multiple sources, including the Missouri DHSS, which concluded that the “insufficient details” provided made it impossible to come to any “meaningful conclusions about any exposures or related public health risks.”
Additional tests were conducted by the Army Corps, finding radiation below naturally occurring levels. “There are no areas of radiological concern in and around the school,” said J.P Rebello, a USACE public affairs representative. The findings by the Army Corps were based on an analysis of significantly more soil samples than were studied by Kaltofen, whose report “makes the radiological issue appear worse than it is,” according to Lee Sobotka, a professor of chemistry and physics at Washington University in St. Louis.
In a public health forum conducted at nearby St. Louis University, Dr. Roger Lewis, professor emeritus of environmental and occupational health at St. Louis University, echoed this view: “His data does not support those claims that there is any potential harm for children at that school.”
Kaltofen has responded by saying that the USACE was simply disputing the way he collected and interpreted his data. Kaltofen cited examples of other toxins, including lead, asbestos, and polychlorinated biphenyls, that appeared widely in school furnishings before their production was eventually banned by the EPA. Parts of Jana Elementary contain radioactive waste, according to Kaltofen, and that warrants closure.
The competing reports have left a community mired in confusion, frustration, and heartbreak. At a contentious school board meeting in November, Kaltofen and the Army Corps presented their dueling reports side-by-side. School board members—including president Cheryl Latham—were concerned by the conflicting results. “What are we supposed to do as a community?”
The Facebook page that Visintine helped create now has more than 22,000 members. In 2012, Scott McClurg, who helped found the original Facebook group, led a class-action lawsuit against Mallinckrodt Inc. McClurg himself was stricken with the same form of aggressive brain cancer, glioblastoma, that claimed Visintine’s son. Starting with 13 plaintiffs and eventually ballooning to more than 450, the lawsuit alleged that Mallinckrodt’s negligent storage of radioactive waste had caused cancers that were killing and sickening them. The lawsuit failed on a class-action level. Historically, proving direct causality for radiation-based cancer is particularly difficult, as defendants can argue that a host of other risk factors contributed to the cancers. Dozens of individual plaintiffs, however, have won cases and received damages, including McClurg after his cancer forced him to retire as a political science professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
For community residents like Bernaugh, the years-long investigation into this contamination has been agonizing, emblematic of the barriers those in underserved communities face when bringing attention to long-standing environmental concerns. The USACE, according to some residents, seemed more interested in doing what was convenient than what was right.
Since 1997, when the USACE was first assigned to the task in North St. Louis County, it has made considerable headway in addressing the waste, said Rebello, including removing 1 million cubic yards of contaminated material from both the original sites and secondary locations. But given a congressional budget subject to change, the Army Corps is also limited in the response it can provide.
Both Republican Senator Josh Hawley and Democratic Representative Cori Bush have called for an immediate federal cleanup. In March, the pair introduced legislation titled the Justice for Jana Elementary Act of 2023 that would allocate $20 million for potential radioactive cleanup. The bill passed the Senate with unanimous consent in April, but has stalled in the House.
The events at Jana Elementary come at a time of increasing visibility for the environmental justice movement. Florissant is unfortunately just one of dozens of communities across the country dealing with the repercussions of radioactive waste. In the fall, Congress earmarked $60 billion for environmental justice. In April, the Biden administration announced that it was forming a new Office of Environmental Justice, having previously established a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “Every federal agency must take into account environmental and health impacts on communities and work to prevent those negative impacts,” said President Biden.
But for Florrissant, it will be years—or even decades—before those negative impacts are rectified and a replacement school is built. Today, Jana Elementary stands empty and still. On March 21, Jana families received a letter from the school board telling them that, despite the conflicting reports, the school would be closed permanently. “There is no expectation that Jana will reopen,” the letter read. “At the same time, we are encouraged by the resilience our Hazelwood School District community has shown throughout this season of change and uncertainty.” When I visited the school earlier this year, I found a playground with vestiges of the turmoil: toys abandoned next to discarded latex gloves.
On May 30, the USACE released its most recent report—totaling more than 650 pages—elaborating on its disagreement with Kaltofen’s findings. The report asserted that no radiation from Coldwater Creek had migrated to Jana, that any radiation at the school fell within acceptable EPA limits, and that the risk of becoming sick was negligible compared to other common dangers that students face. Cosmic radiation, for example, puts all residents in Colorado at around an eight times higher risk of radiation exposure than those who would be in Jana, according to the report.
Despite the recent findings, the school has no plans to reopen. But cleaning Coldwater Creek, which runs along the school’s property boundary, is estimated to take the next 15 years. “Nothing is changing at this point,” Jordyn Elston, the district’s director of communications, told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Bernaugh and other community members continue to question the USACE’s methods, particularly its modeling that assumes students, teachers, and staff members spend only eight hours a day inside the school.
For now, the children of Jana remain in limbo. Spread among five different schools, the students of Jana Elementary have lost the support network of friends and teachers, and risk compounding the educational loss experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Younger students have especially struggled to understand just why they have been separated from their peers. Bernaugh’s son, who attended Jana Elementary, wanted to know why he couldn’t see his friends anymore. “I just had to explain to him that adults made bad decisions.”
For Florissant and similar communities, long-term solutions are needed. “We can’t change the past and our exposure that happened to us decades ago,” said Visintine. As an older generation continues to bear the physical wounds of the compounding disasters, current Jana students will face the educational system alone, navigating more online classes and possible new school closures. For now, justice for either generation is elusive.