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Houston City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a portion of the Greater Fifth Ward Voluntary Relocation Fund that would support residents moving from the contaminated, state-designated cancer cluster.

The decision comes after Mayor John Whitmire postponed the vote in early January to gather more information about the relocation process. He, along with other council members and community residents, expressed reservations about the plan, which the previous administration, led by Mayor Sylvester Turner, approved last September.

“I think the administration, city council, and city hall are reiterating how committed we are to making this vote today,” Whitmire said. “We’re making a statement, and I think we’re on the right track.”

The vote allocates $2 million of the total $5 million to the City of Houston and Houston Land Bank for the administration and management of the relocation process.

Our coverage of Houston's cancer cluster

For decades, a rail-yard site – located along a still-operating railroad in Greater Fifth Ward – was used for wood preservation by Southern Pacific Railroad, which merged with Union Pacific Railroad in 1998.

From 1899 to 1984, workers at the Greater Fifth Ward site used creosote, a tarry substance derived from coal and wood, to coat railroad ties. Creosote contains several known carcinogens. Over time, these chemicals leached underground and spread out into the community, creating a groundwater plume of contamination under residential homes.

In 2019, the state designated the Greater Fifth Ward area, along with Kashmere Gardens and Denver Harbor, a cancer cluster – meaning a higher-than-average rate of cancer cases.

Mayor Sylvester Turner gives opening remarks Thursday while accompanied by Fifth Ward residents Joetta Stevenson, at center, and Pamela Matthews, at right
Mayor Sylvester Turner gives opening remarks Thursday while accompanied by Fifth Ward residents Joetta Stevenson, at center, and Pamela Matthews, at right, during a press conference at Houston City Hall about contamination at a Union Pacific rail yard. (Abdelraoufsinno file photo / Antranik Tavitian)

What funding homeowners could get

Former Mayor Turner proposed moving residents away from the contamination. The plan as it stands is offering homeowners up to $250,000 for their home and land to be used on like-for-like houses away from the contamination. Renters will receive $10,000. So far, of the 42 properties over the most contaminated area, nine owners and renters are considering taking the deal.

Union Pacific Railroad and the Environmental Protection Agency began testing for contaminants in the residential areas nearest the railyard – an effort that began in November.

However, many residents who qualified for relocation were confused by the plan and demanded more answers on what exactly relocation meant.

Cynthia Wilson, special advisor for organizational culture and education for the Whitmire administration, told Council that members of the administration went out into Greater Fifth Ward in January to understand what residents knew.

“It really varied in terms of their understanding of the creosote plume, from where they lived, what they’ve been offered,” Wilson said. “People were confused about the message that was being given. It’s a lot of confusion and a lack of trust.”

To address this problem, Councilmember Tarsha Jackson hosted a public meeting in late January for residents to ask questions about the relocation. Representatives of the EPA and Environmental Protection Agency Union Pacific attended, along with Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee. Residents raised concerns ranging from relocation to testing to ongoing development in the area.

Some community members expressed wanting to stay in Greater Fifth Ward and have their homes cleaned up rather than relocating. The extent of cleanup of the area, however, would be determined by the Union Pacific and EPA testing.

“Obviously, I think it is critical that Union Pacific assist in the cleanup of the mess that they created,” Whitmire said. “We’ve been in contact with them and the EPA, they will fund the cleanup.”

In a statement after the vote, a Union Pacific representative said, “The data obtained by these tests is necessary to determine next steps.”

A woman walks along the train tracks to cross as a Union Pacific train is halted blocking an intersection,
A woman walks along the train tracks to cross as a Union Pacific train is halted blocking an intersection, Thursday, Oct. 26, 2023, in Houston. (Abdelraoufsinno file photo / Antranik Tavitian)

Development issues

In early January, the city of Houston paused construction permitting in Greater Fifth Ward through administration action. There are 71 active permits within the cancer cluster, according to city records, with the oldest being from 2019 and the most recent issued Jan. 1, 2024.

For months, residents near the railyard had expressed frustration about seeing new homes going up while being offered voluntary buyouts. For many of them, it looked like planned displacement and gentrification.

“Because of the testing and documented concern, we have a pause, which means we’re going to take a close look at anyone pushing an application for a permit,” Arturo Michel, Houston’s city attorney, told City Council. “We will reach out to the EPA, because the EPA has broad remedial powers that would probably trump state law.”

An actual moratorium on all construction permitting would involve a vote through City Council and could see backlash from the state.

“I think the pause is somewhat unique because it’s based on the power of the EPA,” Michel said. “How long we can do it is a little fluid right now, but we’re looking at various other options.”

  • Mayor John Whitmire during a City Council

Of the 71 new active permits, only five are new-builds, according to Steven David, deputy chief of staff for the Whitmire administration. Most of the permits are for renovating property that already exists, which David said makes a moratorium a bit more complicated.

“This case is really unique,” he said outside council chambers. “So we are looking at each permit application and seeing what people are asking for.”

But with some answers comes many new questions. In the mayor’s report on Greater Fifth Ward passed out to council members, an entire section is reserved for unanswered questions, with the top one asking, who pays for this and what happens after the land acquisition? What about health care costs?

“We got some excellent, experienced councilmembers around this horseshoe that want to do the right thing to come together with information,” Whitmire said. “I hope maybe there’s an example of how not to do something, and then maybe how we’ve learned we can go forward and regain the confidence of the people.”

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Elena Bruess covers the environment for the Abdelraoufsinno. She comes to Houston after two years at the San Antonio Express-News, where she covered the environment, climate and water. Elena previously...