Energy & Environment

EPA chief visits Houston’s heavily polluted neighborhoods as residents call for accountability

During EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s visit, residents expressed concerns about a range of issues, including concrete batch plants, creosote contamination and the cumulative impact of pollution from multiple facilities concentrated in the same area.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
Regan hears from environmental justice advocates with the group TEJAS in Baytown’s Unidad Park.

The country’s top environmental official was in Houston Friday to visit neighborhoods that have been disproportionately impacted by pollution, as part of a week-long environmental justice tour through the South.

In the morning, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan held a roundtable discussion with residents, community leaders and local officials at a church in Fifth Ward.

Residents of Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens have been calling for accountability after state officials found higher than normal cancer rates in the historically-black communities. They point to creosote contamination from a site now owned by Union Pacific as the likely cause.

During Regan’s visit, several residents, such as Lisa Glenn, talked about what it’s like to have so many neighbors and friends die from cancer over the years.

"It's basically like the whole street has died," she said, adding that she feels like the problem has been ignored for years. "Nobody has even bothered to come over and try to find out why these people are dying," she said.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited homes in Fifth Ward, where state officials have found higher than average cancer rates.

The EPA recently intervened after Mayor Sylvester Turner said he had a list of questions for Union Pacific he hadn't been able to get answers to. Turner and others have also previously called for the contaminated area to be declared a Superfund site.

Regan didn't rule out that option.

"We're going to use every tool in our toolbox and whatever the fastest route to clean-up and restoration is, that's the route that the mayor and I are committed to," he said. "In the event that the state fails, the federal government will step in."

Beyond the creosote contamination, residents expressed concerns about a range of issues — concrete batch plants, lead contamination, insufficient air monitors, and the cumulative impact of pollution from multiple facilities concentrated in the same neighborhood.

"This is something we live with on a daily basis and this has gone on for decades," said Keith Downey, the super neighborhood president of Kashmere Gardens.

The roundtable discussion was followed by a tour through Fifth Ward, including a stop at Bruce Elementary School, which would be impacted by the I-45 expansion project.

In the afternoon, Regan visited neighborhoods along the Houston Ship Channel, where low-income communities of color have long dealt with hazardous pollution from the high concentration of refineries and petrochemical plants in the area.

Houston was his final stop on a week-long environmental justice tour in the south that started in Jackson, Mississippi.

Regan's trip coincided with President Biden signing the infrastructure bill into law last week. The administrator said what he’s learned from speaking with residents will help guide how he allocates the money.

"My goal is that as I make decisions with those resources that I have you all top of mind," he said.

Today in Houston Newsletter Signup
We're in the process of transitioning services for our Today in Houston newsletter. If you'd like to sign up now, fill out the form below and we will add you as soon as we finish the transition. **Please note** If you are already signed up for the newsletter, you do not need to sign up again. Your subscription will be migrated over.