Long after floods recede, the residue of toxic chemicals carried by the water can leave a lasting legacy of loss. It can remain in homes and yards, affecting the health of both homeowners and neighborhoods. During Hurricane Harvey, for instance, sewage contaminated the cleanups of both Kingwood College and Kingwood High School. Decontamination, cleanup and repairs took years in each case. But individual residents often don’t have the money to afford expensive decontamination.
Flooding Near Rail Yards and Creosote
One of the most heartbreaking cases in the City of Houston/Harris County has to do with a controversial, decades-long creosote/dioxin cleanup effort associated with the Union Pacific Railroad yard in the Fifth Ward. The Texas Department of Health Services has identified several cancer clusters in the area. And the types of cancers found near the former “Wood Preserving Works” at 4910 Liberty Road in Houston have been associated with the types of chemicals used on the site for decades.
Residents interviewed for this article discussed several pathways for possible contamination: airborne dust, groundwater, floodwater/runoff, and clothing of workers. Site runoff mixed with floodwater appears to be one of the most likely.
The map above and the photos below clearly show that the site is elevated compared to surrounding neighborhoods. And residents tell stories of multi-colored sheens on runoff channeled through their streets.
UP inherited the site in 1997 after a merger with Southern Pacific. Southern Pacific treated railroad ties with creosote at the site between 1899 and 1984. The creosote is a preservative that keeps ties from rotting and causing derailments.
Union Pacific says it has has found no relationship between the site and cancer clusters in surrounding neighborhoods after 30 years of study.
However, in 2020, the Texas Department of State Health Services published a study covering the years from 2000 to 2016. The study compared cancer rates in the area near the rail yards with those throughout Houston and Texas as the baseline. Researchers identified several cancer clusters in the Fifth Ward neighborhoods you see above.
But UP questions the validity of that study. The company claims that “The area also includes an industrial complex containing about 200 TCEQ-regulated cleanup sites and two superfund projects. The former Houston Wood Preserving Works site represents 33 acres, or less than .4 percent of the total cancer-cluster territory.”
In February 2023, the EPA demanded yet another study as the two sides locked in a stalemate.
Mayor Says “We Know Enough”
Then yesterday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner held a press conference. He escalated the conflict. Turner, who has just five months left in office, says he supported the additional study but, “we have studied the problem enough. The time for action is now. Time is the enemy.”
Turner urged relocating people in the most contaminated areas closest to the site. He emphasized finding safer places in the same general area to reduce the impact of relocation.
“Let me emphasize this,” said Turner. “Time is the enemy of people living in the highly exposed and dangerous zone with limited means to do anything else. How many more people must be diagnosed with cancer? How many more people – and specifically, how many more children – must die? How many more families must be trapped in a known danger zone while we watch, test and litigate? The city cannot and will not continue to wait until we know every single thing.“
The Mayor continued, “We know enough. The cancer cluster is clear. The presence of creosote beneath homes at levels above cleanup standards is clear. The presence of elevated levels of cancer-causing dioxin detected at some homes through the city’s limited studies is clear. You simply can’t wait for the test to be completed, and watch and litigate it, and then start the process further down the road.”
Mayor Recommends Relocating Residents within 2-3 Block Radius of Site
“Today, I’m announcing a strike-force team composed of representatives of the city’s Health and Human Services, Housing and Community Development, Real-Estate Recovery, and legal teams, along with outside sources. They will begin work in earnest on a program to help relocate residents living above the creosote plume and in a 2 to 3 block radius around the site.”
If the results of the EPA’s Union-Pacific investigation reveal broader areas of impact, Turner says the program will be expanded to help those people, too.
Turner concluded with a personal anecdote that related to his own experience with cancer. He said that with cancer, “Time is your enemy.” That’s why he wanted to get people out of harm’s way who can’t fend for themselves.
Lasting Legacy of Loss – Case After Case of Cancer, Boarded Up Homes
When I flew over the UP site last year, I was astounded by its size. Ken Williams, chairman of the Harris County Community Resilience Flood Task Force who lives nearby, introduced me to some people in the neighborhood, including Keith Downey, the local Super-Neighborhood Council President.
They gave me a tour. It was one of my more gut-wrenching experiences since Harvey.
I also met a young lady, Sandra Edwards, who grew up across the street from the UP site. She walked us up and down the block, stopping in front of each house, to tell us the stories of the occupants. Within a half block, we counted about a dozen neighbors who had died or were dying from cancer.
I returned to the neighborhood several times between July and December to photograph the progress of cleanup.
This lasting legacy of loss has been developing for decades. It could be decades more before the parties find a mutually agreeable solution.
Check back for more news as it develops. For more information see this list of studies conducted by the Houston Health Department.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/14/23
2145 Days since Hurricane Harvey
The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.