For most of her life, Sandra Edwards has lived on Lavender Street near the railyard in Houston’s Fifth Ward Neighborhood. Growing up she remembers a vibrant community with backyard gardens.
“People here had gardens in the yard,” she said. “When I first moved back here I had a beautiful garden.”
But now, Edwards calls the neighborhood “Death Valley.”
“There’s no life on it,” she said, gesturing down the street as she counted the number of houses where the original residents are still alive. “Five houses on here have life in them on this whole street. Five.”
Edwards herself moved back home after her dad got cancer. She’s now a leader with the activist group Impact Fifth Ward, which has fought for years to get the contamination in the neighborhood cleaned up.
“When you come home to visit your parents, and you see everyone on the street is gone, and all of it is to cancer, you start thinking,” she said.
State health officials have confirmed significantly higher than normal cancer rates in the area for both adults and children. The nearby railyard, now owned by Union Pacific just northeast of downtown Houston, is contaminated with creosote, a likely human carcinogen. Creosote was used decades prior by the previous owner to treat wooden railroad ties and has since seeped into the soil and groundwater.
Though they haven’t been able to make a direct link, experts suspect that contamination is what’s causing the cancer cluster. Now they’re also worried about the presence of a highly toxic, cancer-causing chemical called dioxin, which officials believe could have been formed in the wood treatment process.
Houston health officials are testing attic dust in some Fifth Ward homes for the presence of dioxins, after they found concentrations of it in soil samples.
“The dioxin in the soil now and what we’re measuring now is of concentrations of concern,” said Loren Hopkins, the chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department.
Dioxin degrades in the sunlight and becomes less potent over time. Hopkins said since the site closed in the 80s, residents could have been exposed for decades.
The Houston Health Department took 47 soil samples around the railyard site – all came back with concentrations of dioxin, with higher levels closer to the site boundaries. Eleven of them had levels considered hazardous for children.
In the meantime, the EPA has issued safety guidelines for residents telling them to avoid contact with the soil when possible: don’t let children play in it; wear disposable gloves if gardening; wipe off pets’ paws before they enter the house.
In a statement, Union Pacific said that “attributing widespread dioxin only to operations at the former Southern Pacific Houston Wood Preserving Works (HWPW) site is unreasonable and inaccurate” since there has been other industrial activity in the neighborhood.
The company added that levels are below state cleanup standards.
Hopkins, with the Houston Health Department, said they decided to test the soil for dioxin after receiving documents showing something called creosote extender had been used at the site.
“I’d never heard of this thing called creosote extender, but what it was was hazardous waste was being used to mix in with the creosote,” she said. Hopkins said the documents showed the hazardous waste had come from what are now Superfund sites and that the treatment process had the right conditions to create dioxin.
“If you take the ingredients that are inside of the creosote and creosote extender and you heat it, you have the ingredients to create dioxin. So I realized that we could have had dioxin created in that process,” she said.
Hopkins said a full investigation is needed to determine the extent of dioxin in the neighborhood and where action may need to be taken.
“It’s not very well understood where all the dioxin is,” said Jackie Medcalf with the environmental group THEA. “What the city of Houston did with their testing is potentially the tip of the iceberg.”
Medcalf has fought for years to get the San Jacinto Waste Pits Superfund site in East Harris County cleaned up, which is also contaminated with dioxins. She is calling for additional health screenings in Fifth Ward looking at a broader range of cancers and birth defects.
“The parallels I see between the communities around the San Jacinto River Waste Pits, and the communities around the Union Pacific facility are that you can stand on any given street and point house by house to people with no genetic relationship suffering from the same learning disabilities, autoimmune disease, or cancers,” she said.
A Path Forward
Union Pacific representatives have been meeting with city and Harris County officials and the local nonprofit Bayou City Initiative to come up with an agreement on testing and cleanup at the site after all three filed notices of intent to sue.
“Rather than rushing into the courtroom we have agreed with Union Pacific to sit down and to see if we can find a way to go forward with both the further evaluation and cleanup of the site in an expedited and hopefully, more efficient and safer manner for everybody involved,” said Jim Blackburn an environmental lawyer with Bayou City Initiative.
He said they’re in the early stages of talks, but hope to have a plan to present to the community soon.
“There’s nothing easy about understanding and cleaning up contamination when you’ve got people living nearby,” Blackburn said.
Representatives from Union Pacific were out in the field last week looking at equipment to determine a further testing plan as part of these talks, according to a release from the company.
Residents say alongside the cleanup they’d also like to see discussion of buyouts, health screenings, and compensation
Walter Mallett, a resident of Kashmere Gardens, said after 40 years he hopes to finally see action and justice for the community.
“It’s not just monetary. I’d like the health to be considered first,” Mallet said. “What good is your money if you can’t spend it? You can’t spend it in the grave.”