Energy & Environment

Fifth Ward residents call on Union Pacific to do more to clean up the toxic contamination in their neighborhood

State health officials have found higher than normal cancer rates in the area for both adults and children.

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
Hundreds of residents showed up Tuesday night to a public meeting to discuss Union Pacific’s proposed cleanup plan for a contaminated railyard in Fifth Ward.

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Residents, elected officials and environmental advocates spoke out against Union Pacific's proposed cleanup plan of a contaminated rail yard in Fifth Ward during a public meeting Tuesday night, calling on the company to do more for the community.

"What are you all going to do about the human beings who are still living in that neighborhood? What are you going to do for them?" said 87-year-old Carlotta Garcia, who was born and raised in Fifth Ward.

She said she's lost half of her family to cancer and people in the neighborhood are still dying.

"Pretty soon, if you all don't help the people that live in that neighborhood, we're all going to be in the ground," Garcia said.

Garcia was one of dozens who showed up to the packed meeting, which stretched over three hours and required a second room to accommodate all those in attendance at the DeLuxe Theater. It was held by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to discuss Union Pacific's proposed remediation plan for the site.

The railyard, now owned by Union Pacific, is contaminated with creosote, a likely human carcinogen. Creosote was used decades prior by the previous owner to treat wooden railroad ties and has since seeped into the soil and groundwater.

State health officials have found higher than normal cancer rates in the area for both adults and children. Though they've stopped short of making a direct link, experts point to the contamination from the site as the likely cause.

"I'm one of them that got sick," said Joel Parker, who grew up in Fifth Ward. "I'm living proof that the situation is bad. We're up here to try to be treated equally like everyone else. We didn't ask to be born over here."

Katie Watkins/Houston Public Media
The meeting lasted more than three hours, as residents, elected officials and advocates spoke out against Union Pacific’s proposed cleanup plan.

It was a story shared again and again Tuesday night. Doris Clay, 85, lost a mother and two children to cancer. Ronald Walker, 74, said he grew up playing near the railroad tracks. He lost a mother and uncle to cancer, and was diagnosed with cancer himself.

"When a family goes through this all of their lives, relatives dying, people dying and no one’s being compensated," Walker said. "I would like to be compensated for what I have suffered through all my life.”

Many asked for more transparency and accountability.

"What I'm going to ask is that whatever testing or data has already been collected from TCEQ as well as UP be readily available for the residents of Fifth Ward," said Joetta Stevenson. "We want that data. We need transparency and until we get it, it is just ridiculous to even consider approving a permit for this entity until they do right for our community."

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
The Union Pacific Railyard, located near Kashmere Gardens. Residents say the railyard is responsible for the cancer cluster in Kashmere Gardens. Taken on Jan. 27, 2021.

Under the current proposal, Union Pacific officials plan to build a massive underground wall on the north and east sides of the site that they say would prevent the contaminated groundwater from spreading. On top of that, the plan calls for the installation of additional wells to extract and remove more of the waste, alongside additional monitoring.

Kevin Peterburs, the Senior Manager for Site Remediation with Union Pacific, said they've been monitoring the site and need the permit to be approved to start the next phase of the cleanup process. He said based on the sampling they've done, residents are no longer at risk.

"The takeaway message here for all of these different activities we've done is that the data shows that the community is not exposed to the contamination," Peterburs said.

This was met with laughter and outcry by those in attendance who said their personal experiences tell a completely different story.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
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.

"You're lying," said Fifth Ward resident Sandra Edwards.

Peterburs’ claim was also questioned by health experts in attendance.

"Carcinogenic chemicals continue to extend beyond the site boundaries in the neighborhood," said Loren Hopkins with the Houston Health Department. "The assumptions of non-complete exposure pathway and no plume expansion are invalid."

Hopkins called for the plan to do more to address the burdens placed on the community and to compensate residents for damage to their property and health.

"The health burdens from this site should not fall on the victims and the public health system, but on the owner of the contamination," Hopkins said. "Environmental justice communities such as this one, without the resources to defend themselves, should not have the added burden of property damage, fighting cancer and fighting for compensation."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner was also in attendance, and said the city opposes the plan as it stands. Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, along with State Senator Borris Miles — who called the meeting — and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, all spoke out against the current plan as well.

Alongside residents, they called for a more aggressive cleanup plan and further testing to understand the extent of contamination offsite and in the neighborhood.

"If the TCEQ approves (Union Pacific’s) permit application as it stands today and without meaningful changes, it will only end up providing minimal new protections for the community and the environment," Turner said. "If the necessary investigations haven't been completed no one can know if (Union Pacific) is building the right barrier."