Ohio community worried about carcinogenic, radioactive material found near school


PIKETON., Ohio (CNN Newsource) – Parents and others are demanding answers after radioactive material was detected inside of a middle school building in Ohio, forcing it to shut down for summer about a week early.

“There’s just not a playbook on how we deal with this and we’re kind of writing the script as we go,” said Scioto Valley Local Superintendent Todd Burkitt.

Enriched uranium was found inside of the district’s middle school building, along with neptunium 237, detected by an air monitor just outside.

School Board President Brandon Wooldridge alerted parents in a letter Monday and announced the immediate closure of the school.

“That’s the reason why we stopped and shut the school building down until we can get an independent study done and find results of what’s going on,” he said.

Zahn’s Corner Middle School is located in the village of Piketon, about 65 miles south of Columbus and home to about 2,100 people.

The school itself is mere miles away from the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion plant, where the U.S. Department of Energy says enriched uranium and neptunium have been identified as “contaminants of concern.”

From 1954 to 2001, the plant produced enriched uranium. Now it is part of an ongoing cleanup project — one that community leaders are skeptical about.

“I am not confident in DOE’s plan to move forward without figuring out, are there activities currently contaminating the community?” Councilwoman Jennifer Chandler said.

The school board and county health department believe the DOE must take “appropriate actions to ensure radiological contaminants are not being released from the site.”

Elizabeth Lamerson, an environmental scientist, lives near the nuclear plant cleanup site. She and a team gathered samples that found enriched uranium inside of the school, raising alarms in the community.

“Every house that I sampled contained enriched uranium above background,” Lamerson said.

One council member said in just the past five years, five students in the district have been diagnosed with cancer. Three of them have died.

“I would hate to think that anyone would think it would be OK to continue with activities that would continue to expose the community to carcinogens,” Chandler said.

The school board is now working with the county health department to “develop a path forward that will ensure our students, staff and community are safe.”

“School’s going to be starting before we know it. In addition to the school, there’s a lot of just concern with people who live near the school. The school’s here but there’s also an entire community that’s also very concerned,” said Pike County Health Commissioner Matt Brewster.

The U.S. Department of Energy said routine air samples near the plant showed only trace amounts of radioactive isotopes, below the established threshold of public concern. However, the agency said it takes all detections seriously.

As for the school, administrators said it will not reopen until there is a plan to keep students safe.

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