Testing will begin in June for the presence of toxic chemicals in northeast Houston near a contaminated railyard, according to details released by the EPA on the upcoming investigation.
Now owned by Union Pacific, the rail yard in Fifth Ward is contaminated with creosote, a likely human carcinogen, that was used decades prior to treat wooden railroad ties. Earlier this year, a legal agreement was reached between the EPA and Union Pacific that requires the company to investigate the extent of contamination at its site. The EPA's involvement comes after residents have been fighting for years to get the site cleaned up.
"We have heard from elected officials. We have heard from public health agencies, from numerous folks that there are concerns about exposure to contaminants in this neighborhood and these communities, and what those contaminants can mean for public health," said Casey Luckett Snyder, the Regional Project Manager with the EPA Region 6, at a public meeting held Saturday. "So we are here at this point to lead an investigation to start to determine, where does that contamination come from? And how does it impact public health?"
Though Union Pacific has done some cleanup and sampling at the site, residents are concerned they're still being exposed to toxic chemicals. State health officials have confirmed significantly higher than normal cancer rates in the area for both adults and children.
In addition to creosote, public health officials have also raised concerns about the potential presence of dioxins, highly toxic cancer-causing chemicals, that may have formed in the wood treatment process. Initial samples taken by the Houston Health Department last year found concentrations of dioxin in soil samples near the railyard site.
Synder with the EPA said in urban environments dioxins can come from various sources and one of the goals of the upcoming investigation is to track the contamination from its source and determine its extent in the neighborhood. To do that they'll compare samples from the railyard site with samples taken from hundreds of homes in the surrounding area.
"This, I’ll be honest with you, is going to be a massive endeavor," said Synder. "It is going to be a really big investigation."
They'll be looking for four different types of contaminants: dioxins, creosote, PCP, and PAHs.
In addition, Snyder said they'll also be studying whether creosote contamination in the groundwater could be affecting the air inside people's homes and businesses.
Testing is expected to begin in June. It will be overseen by the EPA, but paid for by Union Pacific.
This announcement comes as Fifth Ward residents prepare to discuss the long-lasting affects of creosote on their community.
Fifth Ward will have the opportunity to join elected officials and medical experts for a three-day summit starting Monday. The Fifth Ward Cancer Cluster Summit will explore the high cancer rates in the area and find possible solutions for residents impacted by the contaminated Union Pacific Rail Yard soil.
The summit will be held from April 24-April 26, featuring keynote speakers, panel discussions, and interactive sessions. A range of topics will be discussed such as cancer clusters, environmental health, community engagement, and policy solutions.
"We are honored to bring together such a distinguished group of experts and community leaders for this important event," said At-Large Council Member Letitia Plummer, who is also the organizer of the summit. "Our goal is to foster dialogue, build relationships, and inspire concrete actions that can make a real difference in the lives of the people of the Fifth Ward and Kashmere Garden communities."
Plummer said it was important to bring medical experts into the conversation like Dr. Stephanie Miles Richard of the Morehouse School of Medicine, who specializes in toxicology focusing on health equity and disparities.
"The missing link has been the correlation between the creosote in the groundwater in the soil and the cancer," she said. "The reason why I engaged the Morehouse School of Medicine is because who is better than doctors of color to understand the environmental injustice that happens across the country."
The summit will take place at Greater Mount Zebo Missionary Baptist Church located at 5005 Liberty Rd. A town hall is scheduled from 6-8 p.m. following the summit at the Fifth Ward Multipurpose Center, registration is required. A community breakout session will be held on Wednesday from 6-8 p.m. at the Fifth Ward Missionary Baptist Church.