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For decades, the Houston community of Kashmere Gardens has voiced its concerns over environmental contamination from the nearby railyard now owned by Union Pacific Railroad Company.

On Thursday night, those frustrations boiled over with the company’s release of a state health report, along with a statement entitled, “Texas Health Department Finds ‘No Cancer Concerns’ After Evaluating City of Houston’s 2022 Report on Dioxin.”

The report – published by the Texas Department of State Health Services in January after being requested by the city of Houston’s Health Department – found that a sampling from a limited number of surface soil locations in Kashmere Gardens did not show higher-than-average levels of cancerous or non-cancerous contaminants, despite the fact that the city and state have identified the community as being located in a “cancer cluster.”

Union Pacific said in the statement it is making the January report public because “it bolsters the need for additional testing to obtain clear data and because we believe it should be out there so everyone has a complete picture.” The company is working with the federal Environmental Protection Agency on further testing.

State and local officials said the report cited by Union Pacific was a “limited” soil-sample study, and city officials stood by earlier findings that a cancer cluster exists in Kashmere Gardens.

In an email Friday morning to the Abdelraoufsinno, the Department of State Health Services clarified that the January report’s findings are based on samples from “a limited number of locations and they were not taken over an extended period of time,” and that the department recommends “a more comprehensive sampling done.”

In a strongly worded response Thursday night, the Houston Health Department said the state used a generic assessment and the findings are limited.

“For [Union Pacific] to attempt to use this letter from the Texas Department of Health to state there are ‘no cancer concerns’ is offensive to the Kashmere Garden Community and, at the very minimum, totally insensitive,” the health department said. “It is undeniable by the state and city that there is a greater percentage of adults and children diagnosed and dying from cancer in Kashmere Gardens than any other area in Houston. [Union Pacific’s] adverse presence in this community is undeniable.”

Union Pacific’s local community liaison, Janice Evans, confirmed on Friday that the company will continue working with the EPA on further testing. They did not comment on the city’s response.

Union Pacific's Englewood rail yard in Houston
Union Pacific's Englewood rail yard, photographed Friday, Aug. 12, 2022, in Houston. Authorities have identified higher rates of cancer than expected in Fifth Ward around the rail yard. Houston plans to spend millions of dollars to relocate residents from neighborhoods located near a rail yard polluted by a cancer-linked wood preservative that has been blamed for an increase in cancer cases, the city’s mayor announced Thursday, July 13, 2023. (Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP)

A long-standing issue

At issue is a site used for decades for wood preservation by Southern Pacific Railroad, which merged with Union Pacific in 1998. Workers at the Kashmere Gardens site used creosote, a tarry substance derived from coal and wood, to coat railroad ties. Creosote contains several known carcinogens.

Last year, the city studied the same soil samples and found dioxins, a highly toxic pollutant that causes cancer.

“The bottom line is, Union Pacific doesn’t want to do anything when it comes to saving the people who are directly across the street from the railyard,” said Joetta Stevenson, a resident in Kashmere Gardens. “They need to follow through and stop coming up with excuses to do nothing to help anyone in this community.”

The report’s release comes just a week after Mayor Sylvestor Turner announced to City Council he would be making moves to acquire some funding to voluntarily relocate residents who live near the railyard. In July, the mayor said he would create a “strike force” to move residents, which will require $25 million. He said the city will look for this funding externally and internally, including with Union Pacific.

Union Pacific has stated that the company will take no action on relocation until a site study being conducted jointly with the Environmental Protection Agency is finished. The testing is expected to be completed in December.

Area residents long have expressed concerns about the number of cancer deaths in the neighborhood and pointed to the old rail yard as the potential source of contamination. The Texas Department of State Health Services identified a cancer cluster – higher-than-expected rates of cancer – in the vicinity of the rail yard in 2019.

Hundreds of residents since have sued the company over the contamination. The city, county and nonprofit Bayou City Initiative have also notified Union Pacific of their intent to sue due to the contamination.

  • Holly Bennett, at left, and Joetta Stevenson practice songs during a choir practice
  • Joetta Stevenson, at right, gives an interview to ABC 13 about her reactions to a statement released by Union Pacific regarding contamination in Fifth Ward,
  • Sandra Edwards stands outside her home after giving an interview to ABC 13 about her reactions to a statement released by Union Pacific regarding contamination in Fifth Ward
  • From left, Tim Bennett, Holly Bennett and Joetta Stevenson are lead by Kenneth Clayborne, at right, during a church choir practice at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church
  • Kenneth Clayborne leads during a church choir practice at Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church

Residents left reeling

On Thursday night, Sandra Edwards texted everyone she knew when she got the news about the state report. As a leader in the Fifth Ward community and an employee of the city’s health department, she felt obligated to inform everyone about what was going on.

Fellow activists and neighbors, Mary “Cookie” Straughter and Walter Mallet gathered with Stevenson at Edwards’ home to discuss the report, all of them shaken by the news. Edwards moved her couch and some chairs around the living room so everyone could take a seat.

“This is some Union Pacific bulls— and it pissed us all the f— off,” Edwards said.

Sandra Edwards wears a shirt with “Creosote Killed Me” written on it as she gives an interview to ABC 13 about her reactions to a statement released by Union Pacific regarding contamination in Houston's Fifth Ward.
Sandra Edwards wears a shirt with “Creosote Killed Me” written on it as she gives an interview to ABC 13 about her reactions to a statement released by Union Pacific regarding contamination in Fifth Ward, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

Stevenson, a two-time cancer survivor, is soft-spoken, but once she starts to think about the state report, she gets fired up. For all of them, it’s not the state report alone. It’s how Union Pacific sent it out.

“I think this is a very ill-conceived strategy to not put any funding toward the mayor’s strike team program that the mayor announced a month ago,” she said. “It all boils down to the money, to the Benjamins. Union Pacific is still trying to figure out how to not participate in any kind of funding, or help or assistance to the community.”

As the evening went on, other community members started to text and call Edwards, having now heard about the report. She called a few people, too, in case they haven't read it yet.

Straughter said she isn’t surprised by any of this. Her mother, who passed away from cancer in 2007, used to garden in a house next door to the railyard. When she thinks of her mother gardening, she looks stricken.

“I want to cry,” she said. “This fight has been going on for over 40 years. We’ve been working hard. Nobody needs to live like this.”

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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...