Development

Fifth Ward residents want more transparency from Houston officials on development in contaminated areas

The City of Houston approved a $5 million voluntary relocation program to help residents who’ve been fighting for years to get the area cleaned up. They live near a Union Pacific Rail Yard that is contaminated with creosote, but residents have been reluctant to move because of confusion about the city’s relocation plan. 

Sandra Edwards wears a "Creosote Killed Me" shirt, which were made in response to the creosote contamination allegedly caused by the Union Pacific Railyard. Taken on Jan. 27, 2021.
FILE: Sandra Edwards wears a “Creosote Killed Me” shirt, which were made in response to the creosote contamination allegedly caused by the Union Pacific Railyard. Taken on Jan. 27, 2021.

Community members living near a contaminated Union Pacific Rail Yard in Fifth Ward are outraged by the City of Houston's lack of transparency. Mayor John Whitmire's administration said this week the city was still issuing building permits in the Fifth Ward as recently as late last year, while still trying to move residents out of the area they claim is contaminated and deemed a cancer cluster.

The City of Houston approved a $5 million voluntary relocation program last September, in an effort to help residents who’ve been fighting for years to get the area cleaned up. They live near a Union Pacific Rail Yard that is contaminated with creosote, but residents have been reluctant to move because of confusion about the city's relocation plan.

The permitting news came right before the Houston City Council approved $2 million for the Houston Land Bank, the entity in charge of overseeing the moving process for residents if they choose to relocate. The city has issued 88 permits for single-family homes and 17 for multifamily units since January 2019. Whitmire halted building permits in the area about a month ago.

"This is why we put a stop on everything," said Fifth Ward activist Sandra Edwards and founder of IMPACT Justice. "How are you going to relocate me, but next door I got a permit to build? Why would I move and they're coming in and I’m going out; that doesn’t look right."

Edwards lives on Lavender Street across from the railyard and said she doesn't want to move. She wants the city to really listen to the community and not make the decisions for them.

"Let me help you make a decision on my future," Edwards said. "I see myself being okay staying here. Whatever contamination, it’s already here, why would I leave now and go down the road to get sick and die over there... this is where it's going to end right here (Fifth Ward) for me."

Edwards gives the city credit for taking the lead on an issue she said they didn't cause, and she called out Union Pacific for not aiding in the process.

"They created this problem, didn't nobody ask for all this," she said. "They brought it over here and tried to leave it here and act like it didn't happen."

But in an emailed statement, Union Pacific said merged with Southern Pacific in 1997, and inherited a problem it created.

“Union Pacific is completing comprehensive vapor testing near the former Houston Wood Preserving Works site and finalizing additional soil testing plans, adhering to a science-driven approach led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The data obtained from these tests is necessary to determine next steps,” a spokesperson said.

“Since inheriting the site in a 1997 merger with Southern Pacific, we have completed extensive remediation and cleanup. While the latest round of testing is underway, our collaboration with the Fifth Ward community, the City of Houston, Harris County, and the Bayou City Initiative remains active and steadfast, and we will maintain transparency and open communication throughout the process.”

The area has experienced significant redevelopment, including new homes, paved streets, and new bus stops, confusing some residents on the city's motives. Cookie Wickerstraughter said the community has been getting conflicting information since the beginning.

"They say one thing, but they’re showing us another thing," said Wickerstraughter. "So by showing us, it gets kind of confusing and the community has questions. We already know this property that we live on, they want it. The hope and the trust has been broken and you (the City of Houston) need to fix it and stop ignoring us as if we don't exist."

Wickerstraughter also doesn't want to move because of the legacy she said she would be leaving behind. Many Fifth Wards residents are living in generational homes that have been passed down to them, and what might seem like a community and family to them.

"All these properties out here are where grandparents and great-grandparents lived," she said. "Their kids grew up here, neighbors know each other from back when."

Greater Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood President Joetta Stevenson said the city confirmed what most of the community already knew.

"I can’t help but think if this was a eureka moment for them to know that they were issuing permits. The mayor could have come to us when he first got into office," she said. “We knew this already, we let them know and they would still announce, ‘oh, there’s been no permits being issued.’ It was like, ‘No, that’s not true.’"

Stevenson said if city officials want to be more transparent, it starts by being in the community to know what's really going on.

"If you don’t know what we’ve been doing, then you’re flying by the seat of your pants. We want this new administration to be an ally, to embrace what we’ve already been working on so that they can catch up and we can move forward."

Despite the contamination and how Fifth Ward might be perceived by others, the community members said the history is rich in the area. It was a thriving community with working-class people, businesses and landowners, and legendary musicians like B.B. King and Sam Cooke graced Club Matinee.