EPA chief visits Fifth Ward neighborhood where cancer cluster identified

Residents of the Fifth Ward neighborhood that is designated as a “cancer cluster” said their fight for justice was galvanized Friday with a visit from a top administrator from the federal government.

Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, arrived in Houston Thursday for a two-day visit as part of the agency’s week-long “Journey to Justice” tour through Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

“I’ve instructed all of my senior leadership team to give me a full account of how environmental justice and equity fits into every single thing we do,” said Regan while speaking to students and faculty of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University Thursday.

Regan told attendees, TSU’s research into matters of climate and environmental justice provided a framework for addressing concerns of pollution, toxic dumping and cancer clusters in historically disadvantaged urban communities.

President of TSU, Dr. Lesia Crumpton-Young, said the Bullard Center’s research is instrumental in helping to solve the problem.

“We do research to understand issues that are plaguing urban communities,” Crumpton-Young said.

Thursday marked day one of Regan’s stop in Houston, during which he spent most of his time at TSU meeting with Crumpton-Young, touring the campus and speaking with students.

His tour of the Bayou City took him to neighborhoods with environmental concerns Friday, including an area of Fifth Ward that’s been designated a “cancer cluster.”

Regan visited Bruce Elementary School, Greater Mt. Nebo Baptist Church, Fifth Ward Missionary Baptist Church, and a number of sites across Kashmere Gardens and Fifth Ward.

RELATED: State health report finds alarming rate of cancer diagnosis among children in 5th ward

“In talking to the community members of Kashmere Gardens and just listening to the issues that they’ve had to deal with for decades, the exposure, the health issues, the reduction in home value, the inability to relocate, the implications that has been had on their children in terms of education,” Regan said. “These are real stories. I visited an elementary school that is right in [the] direct pathway to the I-45 extension. Not only will the highway be encroaching physically on the school but the emissions from those vehicles will also be further exposing our children.”

Reagan said the issues didn’t occur by happenstance.

“There’s a system in place that has driven pollution into our communities for far too long, and we’re pledging to take a look at it holistically,” he said. “Lean in with our state and local officials and come up with solutions that are better protective of all Americans in this country.”

The EPA administrator promised community members transparency from the agency and that the federal government would step in with a resolution should the state of Texas slack.

“I am optimistic that now that we have as much attention on this issue as we have that all levels of government will lean in and do what’s best for the people,” Regan added. “I can assure you that if the state doesn’t lean in as aggressively as we would like, I don’t have any reason to believe that they won’t, but if they don’t the EPA has a statutory authority and the ability to lean and do what we need to do ... to begin to expedite the cleanup at the levels we believe are safest for public health.”

Regan said the EPA would begin uploading 62,000 pages of data from Union Pacific to its website to make it available to every community member to help control the line of questions posed to the rail company.

Sandra Edwards, a member of Impact Fifth Ward, lives down the street from an old rail yard that’s believed to be the source behind an overwhelming number of cancer diagnoses and deaths.

The yard, located near the intersection of Liberty Road and Lockwood Drive, was used as a site to clean rail ties in the past. Levels of creosote, a known carcinogen, have been found in the soil surrounding the yard.

Residents fear a lack of cleaning and attention has allowed for the toxic area to spread.

More testing is needed to confirm that, which is why Edwards said the federal government must step in.

Edwards said Regan’s arrival to Houston marks a turning point in her community’s fight for justice.

“We kept fighting, and it’s finally getting results,” Edwards said.

Kathy Blueford-Daniels, HISD Board of Trustees, District II, represents the schools that are in the neighborhood. She lives nearby and has worked to get attention on the need for toxic cleanup in the community.

Her question: How have the contaminants affected students’ cognitive development?

“These contaminants and creosote and various environmental issues, has it affected the impact of children’s learning loss?” she asked.

Blueford-Daniels added that she would like for the EPA to commence a study tracing students’ learning loss and whether environmental injustice is part of the blame.

Meantime, the fate of the railyard remains locked in litigation. Residents have filed suit against the site’s owner, Union Pacific Railroad, as well as the city of Houston, citing negligence resulting in deaths.

While they want Union Pacific to be held accountable, the company said it has – and continues – to monitor the site.

“Union Pacific is pleased Administrator Michael S. Regan is coming to Houston’s Fifth Ward to hear directly from the community and we appreciate his interest in the Houston Wood Preserving Works Site, a former railroad tie facility that Union Pacific assumed responsibility for when it acquired Southern Pacific in 1997, 13 years after wood treatment activities had ceased,” the company wrote in a statement to KPRC 2.

A spokesperson for the railroad said it continues to cooperate with the EPA, which requested a plan of action in September on how it planned to address concerns of pollution.

“We have an open, ongoing dialogue with the EPA, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), the City of Houston and Harris County. Earlier this month, Union Pacific provided the EPA detailed responses to questions about our remediation and cleanup activities, which have been performed at the site under the TCEQ’s direction and oversight,” the statement continued.

About the Authors:

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.