Energy & Environment

Fifth Ward residents push for robust testing after toxic chemical found in 47 soil samples around UP railyard

The Houston Health Department announced last week that they had found traces of dioxin — a highly toxic chemical compound — in all of the samples collected near the rail facility.

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Fifth Ward residents gather on Lavender Street near a collage of residents who’ve died or have been hospitalized due to cancer-related illness. Taken on September 29, 2022.

Fifth Ward residents on Thursday continued to push the state’s environmental agency to conduct further testing after a toxic chemical was found in nearly 50 soil samples collected near the Union Pacific railyard.

The Houston Health Department announced last week that they had found traces of dioxin — a highly toxic chemical compound — in 47 soil samples collected around the Fifth Ward area.

During a press conference in Kashmere Gardens, residents were joined by Jacqueline Metcalf, the executive director of the nonprofit Texas Health and Environmental Alliance, who demanded the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to “take a holistic approach to healing the health of these communities” by conducting robust health studies to accurately examine how the neighborhood has been effected by cancer-causing chemicals.

“Adults, children, and animals have lived and played on top of yards with this chemical in the soil,” she said. “These communities have been overburdened, overlooked and shortchanged for far too long.”

Metcalf added that the TCEQ’s studies have “narrowly focused on a handful of adult cancers.” Additionally, Metcalf said that the agency has only looked into seven types of birth defects — as opposed to 49 in total.

“Dioxin is known to cause birth defects,” she said. “We must use all of our voices to stand up and ask the state to study the birth defect registry in its entirety.”

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.

The railyard has been a source of contention for nearby residents for decades, with critics blaming Union Pacific for contaminating the area with cancer-causing chemicals, including creosote — a likely human carcinogen — resulting in Kashmere Gardens being deemed a cancer cluster in 2019. Union Pacific claims they have been working to investigate and clean up the railyard land for the past 30 years, although critics say the company’s plan isn’t robust.

In a statement on Friday, Union Pacific said that attributing the neighborhood’s contamination to the former Southern Pacific Houston Wood Preserving Works site was “unreasonable and inaccurate."

The company also pointed to other local businesses as potential sources of dioxin, such as “metal foundries, auto shops, electrical contractors, printing plants, (and) laundromats.”

During Thursday’s press conference, Metcalf acknowledged that more testing needed to be done in order to pinpoint an accurate source, but added that soil samples samples taken in residential yards nearest the railyard had the highest levels of dioxin.

“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Metcalf said. “I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that these properties closest to the railyard are the ones with the highest levels of those chemicals.”

In July, the city of Houston and the Harris County Attorney's Office threatened to sue Union Pacific over its proposed cleanup plan, which critics say doesn’t do enough to alleviate the issues caused by the contamination.

This sentiment was echoed by Kashmere Gardens resident Sandra Edwards, who said the community had already lost “too many loved ones and children to cancer.”

“Nobody’s coming to do anything. I hear a lot of talk — talk is cheap in my book. I need some action,” Edwards said. “And I’m not talking about five years down the road, because you’re waiting for us to die.”

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