EPA announced sweeping measures to improve the environmental health of communities in the south

Here's what we know:

The Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday announced sweeping measures meant to improve the environmental health of communities throughout the south, including parts of Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens, overwhelmed by a long-known cancer cluster.

EPA administrator Michael Regan said the agency has reviewed proposed plans to clean up a railyard at the intersection of Lockwood Drive and Liberty Road. 

The site, currently owned by Union Pacific Railroad, was used to clean rail ties with creosote, a well-known cancer-causing chemical. The toxin seeped into the ground, creating a plume, which has yet to be fully assessed. 

Regan, who spoke with residents during a tour of the neighborhood in November, said the federal government must work to rectify a problem that’s gone uncorrected for years.

“We have to do better, and what I want to do and what I am doing is taking action,” Regan said. “The federal government is stepping in with state and local partners to do a better job of ensuring that we protect these communities and arm these communities with the data they’re seeking.”

Regan, whose ‘Journey to Justice’ tour last year included stops in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, said communities such as Fifth Ward and Kashmere Gardens have been “historically and disproportionally” impacted by pollution, with residents long complaining of losing loved ones to cancer.

Along with reviewing Union Pacific’s proposal for cleanup, Regan said the EPA was in the process of sending the railroad a list of questions and suggestions based on research and suggestions from residents about how to move forward.

Union Pacific’s proposal is pending approval by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Regan said the EPA will send the TCEQ recommendations, as well, based on community input and data it has just received from Union Pacific.

“Union Pacific provided over 60,000 pages of data that has never been reported to the government so that we could get our arms around just how big of a problem this is,” Regan said.

Understanding the full scope of the problem includes confirmation of the extent to which the contaminated plume has spread, which residents fear is much farther than the perimeter of the rail yard. However, proper testing has yet to be conducted to confirm how large of an area would require cleaning.

Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University Dr. Robert Bullard is also director of TSU’s Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice. 

TSU and Dr. Bullard met with Regan last year to discuss ways to better improve environmental health in underserved communities.

“I think it’s important to put the Union Pacific superfund site in context.  This is an egregious injustice that’s been going on far too long,” Bullard said.

Bullard said the EPA’s announcement was unprecedented in its pledge to support communities long affected by environmental injustices.

“Residents’ wishes and desires really need to take priority in what’s happening because they’ve been invisible for too long and their voices have not been heard,” Bullard said. “So, I think that should be the driver – communities speaking for themselves and saying what’s needed.”

A timeline for approval of a cleanup plan has not been established. That’s pending a green light from the TCEQ. 

In a statement Wednesday, a spokesperson for Union Pacific Railroad said “We look forward to reviewing the EPA’s comments and working with federal and state regulators going forward.”

Residents who live within the so-called cancer cluster said they welcomed the EPA’s guidance.

“I think it’s a good thing,” said Sandra Edwards, a member of Impact Fifth Ward.

Impact Fifth Ward is a group of residents demanding change, many of whom have lost a loved one to cancer.

Edwards monitored the app on her phone that keeps track of air quality in the neighborhood. 

Levels had peaked several times this week alone, she said.

“We got a lot of hits,” she said. “About three or four days in a row, it’s in the red.”

Edwards said the daily reminder of what’s in the air further underscores the need for action. While Edwards and other neighbors approved of the EPA’s actions, they also hoped this latest move wouldn’t prove to be a false start.

“We still don’t have a concrete plan nowhere on exactly what they’re going to do,” advised Kashmere Gardens resident Walter Mallett.

Joetta Stevenson, President of the Greater Fifth Ward Super Neighborhood, agreed, adding justice won’t come until official plans for cleanup include the community’s take.

“If we’re part of the planning, then I know something may come of it,” Stevenson said.

Click here to read more on the EPA’s broader plans outside of the Houston area.

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.