Fifth Ward residents demand answers from Union Pacific Railroad about cancer cluster found in neighborhood

Agency sets deadline for clean-up plan

FIFTH WARD – The Environmental Protection Agency has given United Pacific Railroad until the end of the month to respond to a request for an action plan regarding the cleanup of a contaminated site in Houston’s Fifth Ward, which is believed to be the source of a cancer cluster.

RELATED: Cancer cluster found in Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens

Barry Breen, the acting assistant administrator of the EPA, addressed the letter to Lance Fritz, Union Pacific’s chairman, president, and CEO, on Sept. 9.

“I write to follow up on serious concerns expressed by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during a telephone call and in a subsequent letter to EPA Administrator Regan regarding the health and well-being of residents who live in proximity to the Union Pacific Railroad Houston Wood Preserving Works site,” the letter details.

Breen acknowledges data previously collected that confirms levels of creosote.

“Substantial data illustrate the severity of the pollution and health impacts facing the community living in proximity to the UPRR site, which is why the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice has been leading efforts to improve coordination and communication on the cleanup for more than a year,” the letter continued.

The letter requests Union Pacific respond by Sept. 30 to two specific queries: when did it become aware of the contaminants at the site on which workers used creosote, and what is its plan of action for cleaning up the contaminated area.

The letter follows years of rallies and a request by mayor Turner in July for the Biden administration to seek fines and order cleanup.

Sandra Edwards is a resident of Lavender Street, which is cut off by the Union Pacific Lot.  Edwards is one of the leaders behind Impact Fifth Ward, a community group that works to connect residents who have been affected by creosote contamination.

“People are dying over here,” Edwards said.  

According to Edwards, four residents remain on Lavender Street. Neighbors said many others have passed away due to cancer.

“Now that we have proven that it’s a problem over here, how long does it take for us four to die off, and then you’re going to close the street off, and then you’re going to decide to do testing or do something,” Edwards asked.

Edwards said she feared the letter wouldn’t lead to action because neighbors have sounded their alarm for years and still haven’t received many answers.

“I think they’re playing with us. I don’t think they’re taking us seriously,” Edwards said.

Neighbors want Union Pacific to be required to test the area regularly for contamination as fear grows that underground plume has spread.

“You’re smelling the stuff that’s killing you and if you’re walking here, you’re stirring up dust every time you walk here. So that’s killing you as well,” said Walter Mallett, a resident of Kashmere Gardens.

Mallett, like other residents, fears the plume will spread if action isn’t taken soon.

“You’ve already established that there is a problem. Why not take action,” he continued.

A representative for Union Pacific Railroad confirmed Friday the railroad is reviewing the EPA’s letter.

“Union Pacific received the EPA’s September 9th letter and is reviewing it in detail. We welcome a dialogue with U.S. EPA to share all of the testing and scientific information that has already been shared with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, local elected officials and the public regarding the ongoing site cleanup efforts and the site cleanup efforts over the past 30 years,” wrote Kristen South, senior director, corporate communications and media relations, Union Pacific Railroad, in a statement to KPRC 2.

As the battle over what to do continues, neighbors have sought legal representation.

Rodrigo Cantú is an attorney from Lone Star Legal Aid. Cantú represents Edwards and other members of the Impact Fifth Ward group.

“I think it’s great that the EPA is getting more involved and more interested in this issue,” said Cantú. “It will be interesting to see what UP does in response. My guess is that they’re just going to simply produce reports that they’ve been sending to TCEQ all along.”

How Union Pacific reacts remains to be seen. Cantú said whatever action it takes must include regularly scheduled testing of area soil and sharing of that data to the public.

Edwards said the data will confirm what loss already has shown her. In the meantime, she waits.

“It’s like we’re doing circles and circles and circles, but we’re not getting nowhere. I have yet to see a circle accomplished,” Edwards said.

About the Author:

Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning journalist. NOLA born and bred, though #HoustonStrong, with stops in Minnesota, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticut in along the way.