After cancer-causing chemicals were found in Fifth Ward soil, Houston mayor says cleanup plans are inadequate

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner speaks at a panel at The Texas Tribune Festival in Austin on Sept. 24, 2022. (Azul Sordo/The Texas Tribune, Azul Sordo/The Texas Tribune)

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Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said a plan submitted to Texas environmental regulators to remediate legacy rail yard contamination in a north Houston neighborhood won’t be sufficient after the city’s health department found toxic chemicals in soil samples near the yard.

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“The remediation measures that the [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] and [Union Pacific] have talked about in the past are not nearly adequate now,” Turner said in an interview during The Texas Tribune Festival on Saturday. “You have to include relocation [of residents] as one of those steps in order to address the situation.”

The Union Pacific rail yard in Houston’s Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens — predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods — has for years been the cause of concern for residents, who suspected pollution in the area may have caused an unusually high number of cancer cases among their friends, family members and neighbors.

A 2019 analysis by the Texas Department of State Health Services found higher-than-expected rates of cancer in residential areas surrounding the rail yard; further analyses identified elevated rates of certain cancers in children.

Creosote, a mix of chemicals used as a wood preservative — and a probable carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — was used at the rail yard by Southern Pacific for decades. Creosote operations ceased before Union Pacific took over the facility in 1997, but a toxic plume of contamination remains underground.

In July, Houston’s health department took several soil samples along the rail yard’s fence line. Concentrations of dioxins above the EPA’s threshold to take action for the protection of children were found in 11 of the samples on the north, southeast and west sides of the rail yard. The contaminants did not exceed Texas regulatory limits.

Dioxin is highly toxic, and exposure to the chemical can cause cancer, reproductive and developmental problems and damage to the immune system, according to the EPA. The chemicals take a long time to break down once in the environment.

Further soil sampling will be necessary to determine the extent of the contamination in the neighborhoods surrounding the rail yard, according to the report by Houston’s health department and an environmental consultant, Epperson Environmental Group.

Industrial waste from the site or wood treatment processing could have contained or created dioxin, the chief environmental science officer at the Houston Health Department told the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle reported in August that hazardous waste was mixed with the creosote as part of the wood treatment process as well.

In a statement, Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver said that attributing the soil contamination to the rail yard alone is “unreasonable and inaccurate,” noting that dioxins can be caused by fuel combustion, cigarette smoke, manufacturers and other sources that could have been present in the area.

Union Pacific has submitted a plan to remediate and manage an underground plume of contamination from the rail yard that has moved beneath the surface of the facility to below parts of the surrounding area. However, the state’s review of the company’s plan has been on hold since August after the company, the city, Harris County and the Bayou City Initiative — a community group focused on environmental recovery efforts in Houston — requested more time for negotiations.

“The position of [Union Pacific] and even TCEQ has always been that the plume underground was pretty much controlled and didn’t pose any sort of problem to the water system or the people themselves,” Turner said Saturday. “Now, [contamination] is on the surface and in the soil.”

Gary Rasp, a spokesperson for the TCEQ, said that the agency is aware of the city’s sampling effort and is reviewing the results. In August, the TCEQ granted the request to hold off on processing Union Pacific’s remediation plan.

The TCEQ “continues to support the parties’ efforts in working together,” Rasp said in a statement.

A Friday press release from Union Pacific also stated that the company has met with city and county officials, in addition to local community advocates, to discuss more aggressive cleanup, containment and remediation measures.

Turner said the city has identified some areas near the rail yard for “possible relocation” of residents, in particular for people who live above the underground plume of contamination. He also said he will advocate for compensation of residents whose health may have been impacted by the contamination.

No study to determine the cause of the elevated cancer rates in the area has been conducted. Experts have said it’s nearly impossible to definitively link a specific chemical to an alleged health problem or to quantify exactly how much exposure workers and community members have to certain toxins associated with the rail yard, making such studies extremely expensive and difficult to conduct.

Texas courts have held that plaintiffs that sue for damages from toxic contamination must rule out other potential causes with “reasonable certainty” — a high bar that makes the legal battles residents are fighting against Union Pacific an uphill battle.

In 2021, the EPA got involved with the site, requesting more information from the company and submitting comments to Texas on the cleanup plans. In July, the City of Houston and Harris County notified the EPA that they intended to sue Union Pacific in federal court over the management of hazardous waste at the site.

Disclosure: Union Pacific Railroad Company has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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