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Missouri school PTA says US Army Corps of Engineers findings on radioactive contamination contradict past sampling

By Rebekah Riess and Paradise Afshar, CNN

After an independent report found an elementary school outside St. Louis had “unacceptable” levels of radioactive contamination, preliminary results of testing for radioactive materials by the US Army Corps of Engineers showed “no presence of radioactive material above the expected range of background levels,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday.

Jana Elementary School, which serves just over 400 students, was closed to in-person learning in October. The school sits near Coldwater Creek, which was contaminated with uranium processing residues used as part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb in the 1940s and 50s, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“From a radiological standpoint, the school is safe,” Col. Kevin Golinghorst, USACE St. Louis District commander said in a statement. “We owe it to the public and the parents and children of Jana Elementary School to make informed decisions focused on the safety of the community, and we will continue to take effective actions using accurate data.”

Despite the preliminary findings, the school remains closed and students continue virtual learning, as the results contradict past sampling, Jana Elementary’s PTA president told CNN Wednesday.

“Today the Army Corps of Engineers came and presented at our school board meeting,” Ashley Bernaugh, the school’s PTA president, told CNN. “The information they provided is absolutely in direct contradiction to their most earliest sampling data at Jana Elementary that starts 2018 and continues to 2021.”

The USACE initially detected radioactive material near school grounds in 2018, according to the independent report, and confirmed its presence with more testing between 2019 and 2021.

Marco Kaltofen with the Boston Chemical Data Corp., who prepared the independent report in October, told CNN he thought the USACE finding that “the school is safe” was “surprising.”

Unlike the USACE findings, the Boston Chemical Data Corp. report showed levels of radioactive lead, known as lead-210, several times higher than the expected background. Lead exposure can affect nearly every system in the body and can damage the brain and nervous system, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly 1,000 samples and measurements were collected by the USACE from Jana Elementary School since October 24, according to the USACE preliminary report.

“None of our tests identified the presence of any residual contamination from activities associated with the Atomic Energy Commission or Manhattan Engineer District activities,” USACE Public Affairs Specialist JP Rebello told CNN.

According to the USACE, they conducted structure surveys inside and around the exterior of the school building and took soil samples from 53 different locations on the school grounds. Analysis of the outdoor soil sample testing is still pending, according to the USACE.

A Department of Energy peer review of the USACE preliminary results is expected within two to four weeks, and after the data is validated and peer-reviewed, it will be released to the school board, the USACE told CNN.

“We will continue to advocate for the best interest of our Jana community, and that means protecting our kids, protecting our staff and protecting our community,” the PTA president said.

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